Friday, February 28, 2014

Erik's Favorite Things: Ghost In The Shell: SAC

There seemed to be a time, back in the early to mid-2000s, that animation and comics coming from Japan was huge.  It was overwhelming non-major cable channels, book stores had to completely reorganize themselves for floods of manga about the most mundane and ridiculous subjects coming in, and there were loooooooooooooong debates on the Internet about whether or not downloading anime was okay as long as a) it wasn't licensed for release in the United States yet, and b) it was taken from the Japanese broadcast and had subtitles added on by fans.

I'll freely admit, I watched some fansubbed anime.  Okay, I watched a lot of fansubbed anime, but what started as simply trying to soak it all in like some bizarre sponge that needed speed lines and wacky hijinks to survive instead of water, I slowly found myself becoming more and more choosy about what I watched.

It wasn't that the shows that were coming out weren't still good.  It's just that I realized there were certain formulas for stories that I could predict as a series went on.  It's the same reason I fell out from your standard hour long crime dramas, I didn't need evidence to solve the case, I just had to figure out the formula.

Plus, I kept feeling that there were some really great ideas that Japan seemed scared to explore further than I ever got to see.  Every now and again a series would touch on something that I really wished it explored further, because it seemed like a great idea for a culture to explore itself and its own social issues in a way that audiences could understand.

I mean, look at shows like The Simpsons, South Park, The Boondocks, and so many others that are able to address controversial issues in a way that the audience can understand, and while it might feel ham-fisted at times, they can often approach it in such a way as to leave you thinking about it afterward.

Sadly, whether it was an exploration of how modern society further encroached on their traditions, an attempt to understand specific cultural matters from their perspective, or even a simple explanation of things that people in other cultures might find strange and/or bizarre (say, the sheer number of sex clubs devoted to specific fetishes, or simply just why so many things are sold in vending machines).

But my discussion of series that I don't think really got a fair shake is a story for another time.  For now, let's look at one that I think did manage to do just what it intended to and explore social issues that would affect both now, in the future, and even explain some of the past.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Erik Eats Cereal: Cocoa Krispies

I'll freely admit, I loved Rice Krispies growing up.  I loved them as a cereal, I loved them as a sugary dessert in bar form, I loved to snack on them sometimes.  I was young enough that I had no idea what was causing all those little sounds in there, but eventually was able (without any outside help) to understand just what the cereal was made out of and how air pockets work.

So what happens when they take a winning formula and add chocolate?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ask Erik: Episode Fifty-Three

To Erik:  Hey, didn't you get a PS4?

As a matter of fact, I did.

Is it any good? a game system or as a door stop?

The former.

Okay, thanks for clarifying.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My Little Pony: Pony Tales

That's right, I'm revisiting an old topic here, but every now and again, after dealing with something as emotionally soul-crushing as Max Payne 3 or remembering something like Plumbers Don't Wear Ties (ugh), you just need something light-hearted, jovial, and just plain fun.

However, if that source of happiness is also something much better than it has any right to be on any level, that's good too.

Such is the case with the My Little Pony: Pony Tales comic series.  Yes, that's right, there's currently two comic books being printed in trades at the moment about these characters, and I believe there's a third in the works.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego Part Three

Several weeks after my look at the first episode, we're finally back on track with our look at the first batch of episodes from Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?

Let's just jump right in.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Max Payne 3

I'm a huge fan of the "film noir" genre.  Amongst my favorite movies are The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca (which isn't really film noir, but is darn close, in my mind), and Blade Runner.  I'm also a fan of attempts to do fun things in video games, and for a while the biggest "fun thing" that games were messing around with was "bullet time."

You know "bullet time."  It's that thing that happened in the Matrix movies where time slows down and you see the path of every bullet.  It can also be referred to as "John Woo Time" because he tends to use it a lot, as well as spending enough money on doves to satisfy every wedding in twenty states.

So, what happens when you take a grim, gritty film noir character like Max Payne (not the movie one) and put him in a place of sun, beaches, and bikinis?

You get a frustrating but fun game experience, is what you get.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Erik Eats Cereal: Lucky Charms

Faith 'n begorrah, this is probably the most offensive opening to a blog post I've ever done.

But it's okay, I'm technically Irish.

I completely lost my train of thought there for a moment.

Clarification time:  This isn't my first time experiencing Lucky Charms.  This was (and still is) the go-to cereal for my sister since she was little.  I would have some now and again, but being the older sibling I didn't want to just eat the same cereal as my sister, so I was constantly trying to find my own "official" cereal out of the options available to me.

Of course, when I was little, options for cereal included stuff like this:

But we'll come back to that at a later date.  For now, let's discuss funky marshmallow shapes.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ask Erik: Episode Fifty-Two

So, for today's Ask Erik we're pulling back the curtain a little bit and digging both into my own history and the blog's history.

To Erik: Your site is called Erik At The Gates, but the website is "packsjunk?"  What's up with that?

It was pointed out to me not too long ago that "packsjunk" sounds more like I'm doing a blog about Kardashian posteriors than anything nerdy.  Or intelligent.

This, of course, is not the case.

This might be hard for some people out there to believe, but for a long time a lot of my conversations in life came through "Internet Relay Chat" (during the 90s and early 2000s), and various MU* programs (MUSH, MUCK, MOO) which stood for...well, I never really knew what they stood for, but they were online text communications that people used for games, goofing off, and practicing their programming techniques.

Also, during the late 90s, I got caught up in some of the Pokemon craze as it hit America.  I played the original games (yes, both the red and blue ones) and I can proudly say I did, in fact, catch them all.  There was a chat room back in the day where people could discuss how they were doing in the games, and since I was a collector of many various things, I took the code name (by which I mean "chat handle") "Packrat."  

Packrat became a name I used in a lot of places, and even in some sites I signed up for a long time ago, because using my name at the start of an email address or website registry just seemed "boring."  And amazingly enough, it wasn't widely used.  I guess being a "pack rat" had some kind of negative connotation, but I just knew it to mean that I usually always had something to keep my interest and when I got bored of something, I could usually adapt it over to a new hobby.

As time went on, I was less and less able to use the name "Packrat" so I had to try thinking of variations on a theme.  When I started this blog, I struggled to think of something to call it, and in a fit of nostalgia and desperation I thought I'd call it "Packrat's Junkyard."  A place where anything could be dug up and talked about.

However, "Packratsjunkyard" felt long, so I thought I'd narrow it down to "Pack's Junk" for the web address and just keep the full name of the blog for the header.  However, once I decided to really sit down and take this thing seriously, I felt I had to rename it with something a bit more official, and "Erik At The Gates" won out amongst the other names I was thinking.

I still believe "The Everpresent Wordsnatcher" had potential, but I figured most people never read The Phantom Tollbooth.  Maybe I could've gotten away with "From The Mouth Of The Dodecahedron" or "The Terrible Trivium" though.

Anonymity and a dapper sense of style?  Perfect for the Internet.
Anyway, back on topic.  You can't have an apostrophe in a web address, so "Pack's Junk" wound up being "packsjunk" which is why I'm either trying to celebrate having a trunk that Beyonce could describe as "bootylicious" or I'm celebrating other ones.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Our Cat Haiku Part Two

Today we had to put down Haiku.

After a long conversation with the vet, it was concluded that it wasn't going to be a matter of finances or whether we couldn't do a lot more for her, it was a matter of her quality of life after any more tests and procedures were performed.

So, today, I'm going to share a few more things about this cat that made her special.  Yes, it's completely self-indulgent, but then again, it's a blog, and that's nothing if not self-indulgent.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Our Cat Haiku

Way, way, back in the infancy of this blog, I posted the following picture.

This is Haiku, a ten year old cat our family took in when she was about two from a shelter.  She came as part of a package deal, her son Yami (a black cat four pounds heavier than his mother) came along for the ride.

We were told that Yami was going to be friendly and social, and that Haiku might be a bit distant and weird.

A shelter has never been more wrong.

Haiku is, by far, the friendliest animal my family has ever owned.  She will jump into the lap of anybody and curl up, or sleep on their chest while they're in bed.  She will slowly scoot herself forward to rub against their face, and for many years would even wrap around the top of their head on their pillow just to be near "her people."  She will purr at the drop of a hat, and if she sees you lower your hand down and make a "scratching" motion from two rooms away, she'll prance and trot right over to you so you can pay attention to her.

Yami, on the other hand, needed five years to get comfortable around me to want to sleep on my bed when I'm still in it.  He'll still run away if you approach him too quickly, regardless of who you are.

She also has constant sinus problems, sometimes simply major congestion, sometimes she'd get infections and need an antibiotic.  A few times she needed steroids to help her through her infections and cols.  There was a rather serious incident where her soft palette completely sealed itself up, requiring surgery.  She wasn't able to eat (she'd take in air while eating and just throw all of her food back up), and could barely move.  She wound up down to four pounds before her surgery.  She's now back up to a (slightly more than healthy) seven point two pounds.

This problem, even after her surgery, left Haiku with a signature snort/snuffle every time she breathed.  At least, every time she moved around while breathing.  If she was asleep, she'd have no problems and would occasionally just have a little wheeze as she snored, but most of the time she was silent.

However, it wasn't easy to have the vet look at her.  Haiku loves to ride around in the car, and likes to hang out at the vet, but hates having any tests done.  Early in our time with her, a technician picked up Haiku to take a quick blood sample from her.  My father, who was there at the time, advised she might want help.  She gave him the most "you must be kidding" expression and said, "Sir, we do this for a living, I can handle this."

Two minutes later the tech was back in the room with blood all over her arm putting Haiku down, at which point she said "I think I'm going to need to get some help."

I am convinced she believes she is a dog (alternatively, that all dogs are actually just big cats).  Her best friend in the world is my parents' goldendoodle Pinot.  Our neighbors had two dogs, a black lab and a golden lab, both trained for hunting.  They would regularly visit our house because they know cookies reside here, and at one point Haiku sneaked out the door when they were visiting.  Immediately the golden lab, spotting something small and furry, dashed over to her and ... started sniffing.  Haiku sniffed the golden lab back.  Then Haiku rubbed against the dog.  The dog started licking Haiku's face, which drove Haiku nuts and made her want to go back inside, but from that point on any time the dog saw our cat, its tail would wag and it would want to shower Haiku with affection.

Needless to say, this surprised and bothered our neighbor that his great hunting dogs were turning out to be real softies that just wanted to make friends.

Haiku has proven herself to be a true survivor.  She has managed to escape to the outdoors without anybody seeing her twice and promptly got lost.  This, we've been told, was because her sinus problems prevented her from being able to smell her way home.  

In a lot of suburbs, this might not be as much of a problem, but it's rather wooded where I live, and it's not uncommon to find out there's a fisher, raccoons, foxes, owls, and even the occasional black bear lumbering around.

Once she was only gone for a day when the weather was still warm, causing me to miss work to search the neighborhood for her, until a group of the neighborhood kids (and a small dog accompanying them) discovered her under a stump two houses away.  This was the day I decided I seriously didn't like one of our neighbors, since I was handing out fliers with her picture, and his reaction after looking was to look me square in the eye and say, "Well, she's probably dead."


The second time was a bit more severe, because it was winter.  There wasn't much snow on the ground, but temperatures were extremely low.  I was watching the house for my parents who were out of state, meaning I was also keeping an eye on my sister (who is Deaf and has high-functioning autism).  I spent hours that night searching the woods for her, without any sign of her.  I didn't get a wink of sleep that night, and the next day was out again searching high and low around the street for her.  As time went on, I was convinced she either froze or was taken by an animal.

Again, that night I had no sleep as I couldn't stop picturing all the horrible ways the family's cat had died under my watch.  I barely ate anything all day and was doing my best to stay strong for my sister, who was getting particularly upset.

The next morning, around seven thirty, the phone rang.  I answered it groggily, and someone said "hey, I think your cat's under our car."  My heart immediately sank because I figured a neighbor hit her.

After a moment of silence, the voice said "Um, do you want to come get her?  She won't come out for me, I think it's because my dog is barking at her."

I don't even really remember getting dressed, I was just out the door, in my car, and driving down to the neighbor's house (five houses away, across the street) and crouching under their car.  Haiku trotted right out and immediately wanted to be held.  She was cold, wet, miserable, but happy to be found by her people again.

Last night, Haiku was walking in a hallway when we suddenly heard her screech in pain.  I moved to investigate, and I tried to pick her up, which made her screech again and she bolted towards a cardboard box she liked to curl up in.  I managed to gingerly scoop her up without causing her any pain, and set her on a family member's lap where she stayed calm until someone tried to shift her, then she would cry out in pain again.

I spent several hours last night with my father at the emergency vet having her looked at.  They couldn't find anything wrong, and believed that it could be a pulled muscle or a cramp.  They gave us some pain medication and sent us on our way.  Haiku spent all night in her carrier box on the floor near her food.

This morning, I tried to draw her out of her carrier in case she felt better, and was greeted with more cries of pain.  Something was seriously wrong.

We took her back to the emergency vet, and after a few x-rays, there was no clear answer to what was causing her pain.  She was rather seriously blocked up, intestine-wise, so we had the vet perform a couple of enemas to flush her out (under sedation, of course).

We got her back home tonight, but the pain still seems to be there.  We can pick her up, and she can walk a little bit, but too much walking (more than a couple of steps) and she's crying out again.  We called the vet back to find out if this might just be residual pain or if we needed to bring her back in.  

Here's the breakdown of the conversation.

The emergency vet said that they didn't see anything on the x-ray to indicate any skeletal problems, and all of her internal organs appear to be fine.  

At this point, the next step would be a CT scan to try to figure out if it's a muscular or nerve issue, such as something getting pinched.  It's also possible there's a hairline fracture causing her problems.

There's also one other possibility, something that a recent dog that visited their hospital had:  a cancerous tumor on her spine.  

At this point, we don't know what's wrong.  The vet recommended we call our regular vet tomorrow to see if she has any ideas.  Obviously a CT scan is expensive, and we really hope there's nothing seriously wrong with our cat, but right now we have to seriously look at some options, including "what would her quality of life be if she needed surgery?"  "Does the cost justify how much work it would take to make her healthy, and even then, how healthy would she be?"

I think right now my major problem is that we just don't know what's wrong.  I don't know enough about pet biology to even start to guess what's happening.  If it's a nerve issue, can it be resolved without surgery?  If it's a tumor, what are the odds she'd be without any pain after removal?  If it's a fracture, what would be involved in helping the bone heal?  And again, what are the odds of each one?  

I really hope I don't come across as stingy, but while I love our cat dearly, I know that spending several thousand dollars just to determine the humane thing to do is have her put to sleep is... I'm not sure what the word is.  I just don't want us to throw money at a problem that can't be fixed, especially if it just means she spends more days in pain before we're left with only that choice.

On the other hand, I don't want us to make that drastic decision just to find out later it was a broken toe that the vet missed and she just needed her foot wrapped for a few months.  Or that it was still a constipation issue, and we just needed a bit more laxative to get it out and solved.

So right now I'm barely holding it together as I type this, because writing manages to engage my brain and let me put off having to deal with emotions keep my focus together instead of dwelling on what's still unknown.  My whole family has a long night ahead of us, and only tomorrow will (possibly) give us any more answers.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine's Week! Day One ... of one?

Let's discuss novelty desk calendars.  See, I think they have the perfect racket going, because most people don't retain all sorts of information for very long.  That means they could, presumably, reissue the exact same calendar every year with the dates and days corrected and just have the same Dilbert strips looping forever.  In f-

Wait a minute.

According to mine, it says today's Valentine's Day.


Man, now I have to cram five days worth of Valentine's related topics into one post!  Okay, okay, I can do this.  Here we go!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Erik Eats Cereal: Frosted Flakes

I remember, when I was young, one of the cereals I could eat was Kellogg's Corn Flakes.  It was pretty decent, and I could add pretty much anything I wanted to it.  Sliced bananas were a regular feature, as were sliced nectarines.  I could have it with toast, with an omelet, with anything else I might want that morning, it was always "part of a complete breakfast."

So, what happens when you take corn flakes and add sugar?

Well, you get sweet corn flakes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ask Erik: Episode Fifty-One

To Erik:  What gives?  Where's the blog posts?

My apologies to everyone, the last few days have been rather hectic for me.  I think the highlight of my week is going to be Tuesday, when, after spending two hours out in a large, snowy field with the dog because I couldn't find the toy she was chasing (a note to the woman who tried to help me, I appreciate the effort, but you were stomping around in snowshoes, and that just flattened everything).  This was then followed up with another hour of my searching for my keys that apparently fell out of my pocket.

Today was spent with a metal detector in said snowy field attempting to locate my keys.  No luck.

So after the hours yesterday spent in the cold and today spent trying to catch up on everything I missed out on doing because of hours spent in the cold yesterday, I'm just now really getting up to speed.

Plus, since that doesn't really answer a real question, I think I'll do one more.

To Erik: What got you interested in cooking?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Insert Obvious Stalling Tactic Here

Okay, so I was going to do the next episode of Carmen Sandiego today, but I wound up being distracted by grocery shopping and having a snow blower seize up on me.  This lead to some major shoveling duty, followed by trying to set up a ladder to break up an ice dam and readjust a heating wire on the roof.

Needless to say, it hasn't been the best day.

So instead, I'm taking a moment today to discuss something that has always annoyed me ever since I first saw it and received it as a birthday present many, many years ago.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Jay Leno's Final Performance

Last night I watched the final performance of Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.  It's a run that's lasted twenty-two years, with that one brief hiccup from when Conan was host.  It was completely different from last time, since there were no plans to simply move Jay to an early time.  He had fully announced his retirement, and there was no coming back from that.

So, what did I think of his farewell?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Erik Eats Cereal: Sweet Home Farm Maple Pecan Granola

Yes, I know, this isn't your typical cereal on the shelves.  However, I'm doing cereals, not just children's cereals.  Now, I know that granola gets a bad reputation.  It's boring.  It's bland.  It's jagged and/or mushy.

But I don't think that's fair.  Granola can be anything you want it to be.  You can add fruit, honey, nuts, different types of grains, berries, or any other type of ingredient you'd like to include.  I've made my own granola bars from scratch and tried any number of brands of granola bars, and many are both tasty and healthy.

So, what happens when you take pecans, one of the best nuts out there, and add delicious maple syrup?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ask Erik: The Big Five-O

Here at Ask Erik, we- holy cow, this is the fiftieth article?

Man, I knew some kind of event was coming up, but I thought it was a total number of articles thing, not this.  It completely slipped my mind.

Crud, I had some questions I was setting aside for a day like this, let's see if I can pull them out of the archives.

Okay, to celebrate a milestone, I'm answering ten questions I had been asked in the past year but thought they either needed some extra time to make sure I worded them right, thought about them fully, or that they were just too short to get a full article.

Let's go!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Final Fantasy IV

I've been known to say that the Final Fantasy franchise needs to end.  I still believe this, if just because, grammatically speaking, the idea of something having the word "final" in it and then having numbers at the end just makes my brain itch.

It's partly why I had such a problem with the Final Destination series.  That, and it was mind-numbingly dumb.  In video games, you had things like Last Blade 2, Last Ninja 2, and two different Last Half Of Darkness games, which I guess if you put them together is the whole darkness?

There's also a fighting game called Last Bronx which takes place in Tokyo.  I don't even know how that works.

But that isn't to say I haven't liked Final Fantasy games.  In fact, I've loved a few of them, even if they weren't truly Final Fantasy games.  One of the first RPGs I ever played was Final Fantasy Adventure on the original Game Boy, even though it was actually a game in the "Mana" franchise.  Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is a game I played through to completion, and I even played some of Final Fantasy IV back when it was called Final Fantasy II.

Don't ask.

However, I got stuck in one area of the game and was young enough that I had never learned to have more than one save file in case I got hosed, so I had to quit the game.

Having now played it again on the Nintendo DS, I have to ask myself, does it hold up?  Is the story still as good?  Do the two little kid characters still bother me?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego Part Two

We're now into our look at the first episode of Where On Earth Is Carmen Sandiego, a franchise that I honestly wouldn't mind becoming a live action series or even a series of movies.  I don't know who you could get to play Carmen Sandiego herself, but since the character doesn't really show up until the end, it would make casting rather interesting.

So let's get into the first episode, "The Stolen Smile."