Thursday, October 27, 2016

the blue Amazon GSO, review part 1

The extras include a tuner that is a pitch pipe that doesn't play the right notes, a strap that actually works like a strap, strings that you can't put on the guitar or you'll break it, a "gig bag" that's tissue paper thin, and a pick that's 2.5" long, no joke.

The Guitar Shaped Object checklist

"Guitar Shaped Object," is a term used to describe an item that was sold as a guitar, but lacks some of the important features that makes a guitar playable.

In the realm of people who buy cheap guitars, accusing someone's instrument (or 'instrument') of being a GSO is asking for a fight. You get a lot of, "well, it works well enough," and "it's all I can afford! Do you want me to not play at all?!" and "not everyone can afford a $3,000 guitar!"

However, and I'm just going to say it, if you spent money on s guitar-shaped object and not on a real guitar, then you don't own a guitar. Spending money on a guitar you can't play and calling it a guitar is as bad of a financial choice as spending money on a spiral-bound notebook and calling it an iPad. You spent less, but you're not going to get the experience of playing a guitar out of it.

Most people who fall victim to guitar-shaped objects are people who don't have experience with quality instruments. If you've played a $500 guitar, then broken tuners will feel broken. Bad action will feel bad. Stressed joints will look stressed. If you haven't really played any guitar except for your GSO, you're more likely to think that the broken parts are normal or "good enough." Sometimes they are good enough. Sometimes they're actively stopping you from learning. If you have no other frame of reference, then you can't know which is which.

When someone's critical of your much-beloved Object, it's easy to want to write them off as, "Well, they play $3,000 guitars all the time, so they don't know what a cheap guitar is like."
However, it's important to remember that people who play $3,000 guitars do know what guitars in general are like. Most people who own a $3,000 guitar also owned a $200 guitar at some point in their lives. When a person with a $3,000 guitar says that your GSO is impossible to tune, they aren't saying, "Well, it doesn't have GForce and tune itself!" They're usually saying, "The tuners are moving when they should stay still and are not moving when they should," or "The nut is badly cut and is holding onto the string, making my tuning less accurate."
That said, GForce is hella cool

I've been trying to make an objective checklist for determining if your object is a GSO or a real guitar, and it's been a bitch to make, but here's what I've got so far:

Please note that this list is made with 'guitars' sold in a new state. Your great-grandfather's guitar that requires a lot of care and precision to sound good is not a GSO, it's a guitar in retirement. An instrument that was great new, but slowly lost elements of functionality, is very different from an instrument that, when new, never had those elements.

The number one, defining thing:
Can a person who has good technique make it sound good, using good technique?
This video of the Barbie Violin is a good example. She clearly knows how to play, and this is what it sounds like:
And yes, it's a violin, not a guitar. Principle's the same.

Here's why this matters:
Guitar technique is universal. While there's some difference between guitars of different styles and music of different styles, a person with basic good technique should be able to pick up a guitar and have it make some pleasing sounds.
That's what I love about the Barbie violin video: in the second half of the video, she switches to a very basic song that is taught to people just learning the instrument, and it sounds like a screaming mess.
If your guitar requires bad technique to make it sound passable, it's not a guitar, it's a GSO. If a guitar requires extremely precise technique to make it sound passable, it's not a good instrument for a beginner, but it might not be a full GSO.

Do the pieces work as intended?
 Not talking about the fine things here. This isn't asking if the tuners are smooth or the balance is perfect. Can you use the tuners to get the strings in tune? Do the frets change the pitch of the strings?
No? Then it's a GSO.

And then the finer things. Do the tuners turn in the normal direction? Can the strings be wound on the tuners in the normal way, or are they fiddly or backwards? Do the frets buzz? Does the output jack give clear output from every angle, or does it cut out if the cord's held at certain directions? Do the tone controls give you a wide range of tones? or just one or two spots where it sounds good and the rest is a mess? One or two of these things alone might not make it a GSO, but several definitely pulls it in that direction.

Why this matters:
The function of the basic pieces of a guitar is not a feature, it's an element. If you buy a car where turning the wheel left goes right and turning it right makes the car go left, it's not a funky quirky car. It's just a shitty car. A guitar that requires a Master's degree in precise string winding and fiddly tuning isn't a guitar, it's an Object.
If it doesn't properly fulfill the basics of what it takes to be a guitar, it's not a guitar.

Are all the pieces there?
Does it seem like all guitars have a function that yours doesn't have? That might be because you don't have a guitar, you have an Object.
Fully electric guitar, but no tone controls? Doesn't have a truss rod, but every other guitar you can find like it does? No way to adjust the intonation or action at the bridge? Does it have a head design that needs string trees, and that plays like it needs string trees, but it doesn't have string trees?
I'm not talking about an acoustic guitar not having a scratch plate or a strap button at the top. I'm talking about an essential elements that make a good sound. To go back to the car metaphor, it's still a car if it doesn't have air conditioning. It's not a car if it doesn't have seats or a break pedal.

Why this matters:
It might be able to make good noise without the essential pieces, at least for a while. But a good guitar has elements that make it playable in a wide variety of situations, and has pieces that can adjust for changes in humidity or different kinds of amps or different thicknesses of strings.
Not having elements that do that might not stop it from being a guitar, but only in the same way that my 1989 VW Rabbit that hasn't driven since '02 is a car. It's a car, but only if it stays in one location and does very specific things. If you can't use it like a guitar, it's not a guitar.

Does it play the right notes?
People own guitars for two reasons: to make music and to get laid. If your guitar will not make music, you will not get laid. Therefore, guitars exist for one reason: music.
If your guitar does not play the right notes, you will not make music, and therefore not get laid. ):
Guitars play the wrong notes for three main reasons: the strings are out of tune, the intonation is wrong, or the fretboard is wrong.
If the string is the wrong tune, the string itself should still play properly relative to itself. When you play the first fret, the note should be raised half a step, no matter what the string is set to.
If the intonation is wrong, you can hopefully fix that (see previous comment about adjustable bridge saddles).
If the frets are in the wrong place, you're fucked. There are two ways to fix a guitar with frets in the wrong place. The first is the extremely expensive fretboard replacement, where a new board is made with the right frets, and put on your guitar.
The second is the more common, frequently similarly-priced, full-guitar replacement.
This is an easy thing to check for yourself. You need a precise tuner (I use GStrings on my phone) that tells you the HZ of each note, and you need your guitar (with suitable amplification to make the tuner pick up your notes).
So, pick a string, and tune it with the tuner so that the open string plays a note perfectly. That little needle should be right in the center of the tuner display.
Now fret the first fret and play the string again. You want that note to be almost in the center of the display as well. Check around on the fretboard, and you want most frets to be playing notes that have the needle roughly in the center. If your frets are ringing really sharp before about the 5th fret, you're going have problems.

Why this matters:
If it can't play music, it's not a guitar, it's a GSO.

How long is it going to last?
Durability is not always the sign of a good guitar. Unnecessary fragility is frequently the sign of a bad guitar.
Guitars go through things. You love them, you treat them nice, you buy fancy hard cases that protect it from harm, but it's also going to be in your car when you get into a crash and strapped to your shoulder when a drunk guy rams the stage with his shoulder.
Three of my guitars and two of my ukuleles are 10+ years older than me, and still in totally playable shape. None of these guitars was built to be particularly durable, and all of them have a little bit of road wear and battle damage, but none of them have broken in a way to make it unusable or less enjoyable to play.
Every guitar that I own could survive a drop from 9" high onto a wooden floor and not suffer any structural damage (yes, even the 30-year-old Ovation, despite everyone's insistence that it'll shatter like glass). I'm not saying you need to beat your guitar up, but if you're afraid to grab it by the neck and pick it up, it better have a really good excuse for being that fragile.

And another thing: A guitar shouldn't destroy itself through the process of existing. If you tune it up, put it on a good stand, leave for the weekend, and come back to a neck that's broken and unglued itself, you didn't have a guitar.
They're not like violin bows. You don't need to remove the tension when they're not in use.

Why this is important:
Because even if it was a guitar before you dropped it, if it broke in the first week of you owning it, it's now a guitar-shaped object.

OKAY, PINK, BUT WHY DO YOU CARE? why do YOU care how I spend MY money?
1) Because I like playing the guitar and watching other people get excited about learning the guitar. Because there's something very special to me about watching someone get interested in a thing I am interested in. Because I think the worst thing you can do to someone who is interested in something is to make it so they are not interested in that thing anymore. Because giving someone who wants to learn guitar an Object doesn't just make them lose interest in that particular Object, but in playing guitar in general.
2) Because there are so many good quality instruments out there that cost the same or less than the GSO crap you bought off Amazon for $39. This is especially true with guitars. There's so many people out there who bought a usable guitar, found out it wasn't for them, and are selling it in barely-used condition.
There are three ways to judge if you got your money's worth for something. How much would it cost to buy another just like it? What else is out there for that price? Do you feel like you paid too much?
Because, first of all, if there's some intangible "other" about what you own, and you feel like it was worth the money, then fine. But if you spent $80 on a guitar, and someone else is selling that exact same guitar for $30, you didn't get your money's worth. On the other hand, if you have a guitar that's technically worth about $30, but is very special to you in some way, then you might not be willing to part with it, because money cannot buy a replacement. If you got a used guitar for $20, but you would need to spend $300 to buy one exactly like it, you got more than your money's worth.
When you look at money this way, a $30 GSO will always be less than your money's worth, and searching around for a quality used guitar will almost always be more than your money's worth.
People buying GSO's because they think they're saving money just frustrates me. It's like burning $20 bills because you think the fire's saving you money on your heating bills.

So, there, my guide to looking realistically at an instrument and saying, do I hate guitar, or do I hate my guitar?
Also a handy guide to "do I need to feel bad for smashing this at the end of my set?" and "Can I cover this in glitter and route holes in it and make it into a zipline for the play that I'm working on?" and "Can I use this as a weapon."
Because as we all know, destroying an instrument for the sake of destruction is unforgivable.
But as we all learned, there's a lot of things out there that look like guitars, but just plain aren't.
Go have fun.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Fish Sickness, part 2

This one might be a bit more organized.
Recap from the last post: I have 4 betta in a split 20 tank with good parms*. One of them has a symptom called popeye. The other three have problems that wouldn't be a concern for a single fish, but having four fish with these conditions together points to a bacterial infection. The whole tank is being treated with a 4-day treatment of API's Tetracycline. Tetracycline is a broad-spectrum antibiotic.

So, treatment day 2:
STEP 1: Water parameters. Something I forgot to mention is that if you're doing a several day course of treatment, you can't do water changes during. This means if your nitrates are at 35, you'll want to do a change before you do the treatment, to prevent them from going over 40.

Even if all the water parameters were fine yesterday, test them again today. This double-checks that your tests were right the first time, and it's important to know anyway. If your water quality is not perfect, always fix that before going to another treatment, unless the symptoms are life-threatening.

My tank temp is between 78 and 82. Because of the dividers, some parts of the tank are cooler than others. I have two thermometers to make sure the warm sections don't get too warm, and the cool sections don't get too cold.

I tested my ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate and came up with 0/0/10, which is good and normal. It's important to test your water ~12 hours after putting a treatment in your tank, in case it killed some of your filter bacteria.

The surface of my tank is covered with foam. This is from the tetracycline, and as long as it's not interfering with  the fish's ability to breathe, I'm willing to just keep stirring it back into the water. If I was running a hang-on-back or internal filter, I'd probably have the foam in the water chamber. Undergravel filters don't have a water chamber, so it comes out on the top of the water instead. I googled "API Tetracycline foam" to double check. Google is your friend for whenever you don't know what to do.

STEP 2: Now it's time to look at the fish. Because Twister is my sick boy, and because he was easy to cup, I put him in a cup for a few minutes to get a good look at his eye. It's still cloudy and swollen. Bo and Mr Tipsy's tumors (which both look like internal tumors, but could also be hemorrhagic septicemia, which is also bacterial) are still the same size. Bo's fins look like normal, as do Fierce Mango's. I'm feeling extremely stupid at this point for assuming that all my fish had unrelated, non-contagious diseases. That's the problem with google. You search until you find an answer that sounds right or feels right, and then you stop looking.
We all make mistakes. What's important is that, when you realize you made a mistake, you admit it and re-evaluate your plan of action.

The good news is that tetracycline can treat bacterial fin rot, popeye, and hemorrhagic septicemia, if they're all caused by the same bacteria. Since this is a shared tank, there's a good chance that's the case.

STEP 3: Take a look at your fish and make sure your plan of action is still a good plan.
First things first: Have you already started a treatment? In my case, I have. If you've already started a medicine, you need to do the complete treatment, even if the fish look or act like they've healed. Do you want antibiotic resistant bacteria? Because running an incomplete course of antibiotics is how you get antibiotic resistant bacteria.
The only exception to this is if the fish is having trouble breathing after you put the treatment in, but wasn't before you did. If it looks like the fish is having trouble breathing with the treatment in the water, you need to get them out of there.
Did you do any non-medicine treatments? These include aquarium salt added to the water or aquarium salt baths and epsom salt baths. Do those things look like they've helped? If it helped, do it again.
Do the symptoms look worse? More swollen, more ragged, anything? This might mean that you need to get more aggressive with your treatment.
How's the fish acting? Did he go from being active to being withdrawn? Did he go from swimming to lying on the floor? Is he having trouble breathing, staying afloat, or sinking? Did he go from withdrawn and back to active? Behavior is a good way to judge how your fish is feeling.

STEP 4: So now what?
If your water quality was bad, and your fish is not having any life-threatening symptoms, wait to see if their condition gets better with clean water.
If the fish had damaged fins or sides from contact with another fish or decor in his tank, are the edges of the wound looking infected? Are they looking like they're healing? Does he have new damage?
If the treatment was working, keep doing it. If you started a medicine, keep treating until you've finished the course.
If the treatment wasn't working, or wasn't working well enough, look for other options or ways to make the treatment stronger. Now might be a time to add medication, if you weren't already using it. Remember to check if you can continue salt baths or adding salt to your water while using another medication. Don't mix treatments unless you know they won't interact.
If the treatment's working, but there are other life-threatening symptoms, you need to treat those too. Sometimes you need to do whatever you can to keep the swelling down, so the antibiotic can cure the infection before the fish dies of the swelling.
If the fish is significantly worse and clearly suffering, now might be a good time to buy clove oil in case you have to put him down. It's not easy to think about it, but it helps to have it on hand.

It's frustrating, but there's a lot of taking care of sick fish that's just about waiting and watching.

It's also scary, because betta fish are small and can go into organ failure quickly and without a lot of outward warning signs, so keeping an eye on them is important.

Quick note on bettafix: I wrote a song about bettafix. It goes bettafix isn't an antibiotic. Bettafix is an antiseptic. Don't use bettafix on things it isn't designed to treat.
And then you repeat that for five hours. I have an EP i'm releasing in april.
Also, when using bettafix, watch out for an oily shine on the water. If you see that, skim it off. A lot of people say it can damage a betta's lung-like labyrinth organ.
In general, there are treatments out there other than bettafix, and bettafix is popular because it's so cheap. Like with any treatment you use on your fish, google is your friend. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

unorganized information about sicknesses

Twister the betta's got popeye going on, and I"m hoping that's not what's causing all the minor little problems in my tank.
For those of you who didn't do your basic Betta Fish Popeye reading, let's have some review:
  • ~Popeye is when your fish's eye gets swollen and sticks out of the head a bit. In Twister's case, it's also cloudy. I'll see if I can take a picture tomorrow, but he's asleep right now and I'm not going to stress out my sick fish unnecessarily for the sake of educating your guys, sorry. There's pictures on google.
  • ~Popeye is a symptom, not a disease. The actual cause can be a bacteria, virus, or fungus.
  • ~Because of this, if you treat for the wrong thing, it's not going to do any good. You need to know what the cause is.
Okay, so here's what I'm doing, complete with abuse of the formatting tools. If anyone out there thinks I'm doing the wrong thing or has any advice, let me know! I'm not a 100% fish expert, I can be wrong, and I don't want my fish to die, so I'm going to listen to anyone with any advice. (I'll translate this for the non fish people in case you just love my writing or something)
1) Like with all fish shit, first thing to look at when a fish is sick is tank parms. Mine's a split 20l with 4 male betta, cycled UGF, 78 degrees, 0/0/15 
*(Translation: 20L is a size of tank, 4 male betta live in it, "split" means I'm not a nutbag trying to keep 4 violent fish with each other. Their spaces are split, but their water is shared, so they all have been exposed to whatever made Twister sick. Cycled means it's established the nitrogen cycle and ammonia waste is being converted into nitrate by the bacterial filter. UGF is a type of filter. Sometimes people ask what kind of filter because certain filters are known to be unstable, and some don't have good places for filter-bacteria colonies to grow, so it's always a good idea to mention. 78 degrees is the temperature of the tank, and 0/0/15 is my ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels. Everyone lists them in the ammonia-nitrIte-nitrAte order, pretty much always. "parms" is short for "parameters" and not "parmesans")
If you're asking for fish help, always provide this information up front.
Even though I know that my water stays in the good range with my current maintenance schedule, I still checked this anyway. I use API's liquid ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate tests. I don't like test strips, because they expire much more quickly, and lose accuracy.
WHAT THIS MEANS: In any case where your betta is sick, if the water isn't 76-82 degrees or your water levels aren't 0/0/<40, the first step is to make that happen. I say it every time I talk about betta help, MOST BETTA SICKNESS IS CAUSED BY BAD WATER QUALITY.
If the water was bad, the first thing I would do is change the water to get it to the right level. Then, if it's not immediately life-threatening, I'll give it 24 hours of careful watching but no further treatment.
In my case, the water's fine. Depending on the sickness, I might boost the heat of the filter, but I'm not going to do that until I know what's causing the sickness.

2) Step two is to look for other symptoms. That's right, you make sure the water's right before you look for other symptoms. If the water's not right, that needs to be fixed. Nothing else matters until the water quality is better. You can't tell what symptoms are sickness and what symptoms are water quality until you get the water quality in line. 
The first thing is to look for any life-threatening symptoms. Is the sick fish sitting on the bottom, panting or gasping? If you've got a community tank like mine, you need to look at all the fish. Anyone on the bottom struggling to breathe? Is anyone bloated or swollen around their middle? This can be a sign of organ failure, especially if they also have scales sticking out. Does anyone have fuzzy things around their mouths? This is the sign of columnaris, which is a nasty bacterial infection that needs fast treatment.
If I see any of those, there's no time to wait. Something needs to be done and it needs to be done fast. I usually pull the fish into a hospital tank of new water, so I can get a better look at them and look for anything else. Swollen fish get epsom salts, obvious bacterial infections get antibiotics, and so on.

Other symptoms <list in incomplete. Always google your symptoms*>
Fungal/Parasitic: fuzzy spots not on the mouth, raised white dots, gold dusting that shines under a flashlight, indent-lookin' thing between the eyes
Bacterial: sores, cloudy eyes, ragged fins that won't go away with clean water
Other: torn fins that showed up suddenly, things that look like physical damage
Long-term: tumors, scars, the suchlike. 

My tank's symptoms:
Twister: the stickin' out eye. No fin damage or rot, no body damage, no lumps or scars. Nice iridescent shine. Acting withdrawn and has been spending time at the back of the tank, sleeping on plants or the floor. Has been withdrawn for maybe 3 days. No trouble moving or floating. Breathing normal. Not struggling to reach the surface. Swimming normally, but less active. Good weight.
Bo: Swimming normally and actively. Iridescent like normal. Raggedy fins that have been refusing to grow properly for over a year (can be the sign of a bacterial infection, but I'd chalked it up to bad genetics). Internal tumor-like lump (could be bacterial) showing through his skin that's been there for 3+ months. Good weight.
Mr Tipsy: Mr Tipsy has some fucked up genetics. Skinny due to not eating well due to mouth that doesn't close. Tumor-like lump on one side that's been there for 5+ months, tumor-like lump on the other side that's been there for 3+ months. Not iridescent and never has been, so useless diagnostic criteria. No fin damage or rot. Swimming normally.
Fierce Mango: Black tips on his tail rays (can be bacterial but could also be coloring). Growing normally and eating and swimming well. 

All in all, what I saw with my fish was several things that, on their own, weren't worrying me (except Twister's eye), but when looking at the whole tank, made me think bacteria. Since I'd treated the whole tank with prazi (an antifungal) less than 6 months ago and nothing new had been introduced except Fmango (who had also been treated with prazi when I got him), I thought bacteria was more likely than fungal. 
If your fish is sick, but not looking life-threatening, it's usually better to start with an antifungal than an antibiotic. Antifungals don't make resistant bacteria and they're more easily processed by the kidneys of the fish.
If your fish has damage, like a torn fin or a wound, bettafix is an okay product. Bettafix is an antiseptic, not an antibiotic. It doesn't do anything for internal infections. It doesn't do anything for bacterial problems that aren't cuts or scrapes. Think of it like fish neosporin. Also, if you see an oily sheen on your water, do a big change right away. The oil in bettafix is actively bad for their fish lungs.
If I thought it was viral, all I could do would be to separate the sick fish, empty and clean the whole tank, leave it to dry for a few days, and reassemble it.

But since I had good reason to believe that it's bacterial, I stuck two packets of API tetracycline in the water in agreement with the package directions, and now I wait and keep following the instructions. 
Because I had good reason to think everyone was exposed, I'm treating the whole tank instead of excluding Twister. 
 When you're using an antibiotic, it's extremely important to follow the instructions exactly and to use the proper dose for the proper length of time. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are a real thing and they're scary and you don't want them in your tank. 
Because I'm really tired, the story ends here for tonight.

*75% of my betta care is googleing shit for other people

Monday, July 25, 2016

Wordy DIY Fretboard Stickers Review

Muy Importante Edit: Down in this post, I mention that if you want to,  you could probably find the original maker that the hummingbird stickers are knock offs of. I think I found them. More rambling after the review.
Original post reads: 
It's always weird to review Chinese knock-off products, but that's sure not going to stop me. Being weird has stopped me from doing zero percent of things I've wanted to do, since 2013(ish)

I bought these stickers.
Product image

My Pictures, No Flash and Yes Flash

In case you're not familiar with the concept, or can't figure it out from the picture, they're stickers that you put on the fretboard of your guitar to give it the look of being inlaid, or just to give it a neat design.
They're a bit tacky, but if that's your style (and that's my style), they're nice and cheap. I think these are especially nice if you're thirteen (or thirteen at heart) and you really wanted a pink glitter guitar, and your parents bought you a plain, boring, nicer quality guitar. You'll thank them later (I thanked mine!), but for now, nothing wrong with wanting a humming bird on your guitar. You could be doing destructive things, like carving your favorite band into the back. Don't do that. Just do stickers.
And while you're at it, do removable stickers like these so you won't be stuck with a bass with a Sunny Day Real Estate sticker that you just can't get off, and you have to sell for $100 at a swap meet because you couldn't get the price you wanted for it, because no one likes Sunny Day Real Estate.
I think I got lost. Where was I? HUMMINGBIRDS. STICKERS. YES.

About The Stickers:
You see the same several designs going for various prices all over the internet, and they're all usually from China. Because these are the same designs, sometimes stolen or copies of copies of copies, your print quality might vary. You might buy the same stickers that I did, and get different stickers. It's pretty tricky to tell, and my suggestion is either find the original seller (and probably pay more for higher quality stickers) or buy the cheapest ones you can, so that if they're bad, you'll only have wasted the cost of a cup of coffee.
However, from what little I understand about Chinese resellers, most of them will have the same stickers, that they all got from one supplier.
The stickers come on a yellow piece of paper. Despite what they look like in the product images, they are not metallic. They are printed with a mottled pattern, which can look metaillic in some angles.
Because this pattern is easily available, people who are familiar with fretboard stickers would know that they're stickers, and not real inlay. That's a very small group of people, though. 

About My Guitar:
These went on my beater guitar (the guitar you take to the beach so it can get wet and sandy, or camping so it can get covered with smoke and chicken grease. The guitar that you love, and that if you break you will cry, but that isn't the nicest guitar you own). I've wanted to do some custom stuff like this to a guitar for a while, but didn't have a true beater to do it on. I've had a really nice Ovation guitar that was my dad's, and I think he'd disown me if I put stickers on it.
It's a nylon string/classical guitar, which means it has a wide neck and no fret markers. That's something to keep in mind if your guitar is different. It's got 18.5 frets, which is a pretty small number. Most guitars have 20/24.
The fretboard has a lot of wear. It's got some deep grooves in it.
The guitar itself is a pre-1989 Suzuki from Nagoya.

The Application Process:
First, I had to take off my strings. There is absolutely no way to do this successfully without taking off the strings, or at least loosening them until you have good clearance of the fretboard.
I use oil on my fretboard, but I hadn't oiled it in about 2 weeks. I did not use acetone or any oil remover to clean the fretboard.
Because this design has fret markers built in (the white flowers), it's important to start at the top and work your way downward.
The stickers are cut right at the edge of the design (which is good, because it helps them look like inlay). This makes them a bit tricky to put on. I put the first white flower as far to the right as I could, and then followed the pattern down.
It's good to note that every sticker is cut with the ends being parallel to the fret. This can help make sure you're not putting them on crooked. I didn't measure, I just eyeballed it. Repositioning them was possible, but tricky.
When I had all of them on, I put a piece of paper over it and then rubbed with a hard object to really stick them down.

Sticker quality:

The stickers are very precisely cut to make the right shape. I think this is the most important thing. There's a lot of visual distortion between your guitar and the viewer (distance and strings, mostly), so it's not as important that the image be clear as that it has a lot of contrast between the brightest colors and the fretboard.

The actual images are blurry, but not pixelated. God, I hate pixelation. This is probably a side-effect of stealing the design from another artist, and not being able to get big enough pimages of the original for reproduction. Since your guitar's usually seen from a distance, this isn't obvious to the casual observer.

The stickers probably effect my tone somewhat, in the same way that you get different tone out of a maple fretboard versus a rosewood one. It's not a tone difference that I can hear.
I did a couple hours of playing, complete with a lot of string bends, and the stickers did not scratch or peel up. It's important to note that my nylon strings are almost certainly easier on the stickers than steel strings would be, but I have faith that they'd stick with steel strings unless you're fretting really hard (and really, you shouldn't be fretting that hard).
 Removal was easy. Removing the sticker intact was hard. I had a couple extra in the set because I have so few frets, so I stuck some on as hard as I could and then removed them. I left some to set and to be played on for a couple hours, and they were still removable.
After this testing, I'd be willing to put them on my $600 guitar (though I wouldn't because my dad would be disappointed) with faith that they'd come off without damage. 

So, In Summary:
  • Theses stickers are cool
  • These stickers are a nice way to make your guitar distinctive
  • These stickers are staying put
  • These stickers are removable
  • These stickers look pretty cool
  • These stickers are cheap
If you like the look, I definitely suggest picking up a set! They're a lot of fun and a good way to add details to a guitar without decreasing the value.

Someone sent me a picture of the product that the one I bought was ripping off. These stickers are $20, and look 100x better (in this picture). I also like supporting original artists when I can, and when I have the money.
Does that mean that you shouldn't buy the stickers I bought? That's up to you. I still like them. I still think they look good. They were easy to put on. Are they going to convince anyone that they're real inlay? No, but they look nice. I'll review the ones from inlaysticker when they get here, to give you more information so that you can make your choice.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Giving Back Mag

So, earlier today on tiwtter I tweeted three or four pictures of giving back magazine.

Giving Back Magazine (which I'm going to call GBmag from now on) sort of personally offends me. I didn't know it existed until Thursday, and now I'm angry about it. Sort of. As much as I care about anything right now. I'm a little tired and so this isn't going to have my standard level of bitchy snark.
I"m not angry. I'm just kind of bothered. A little offended. And I want everyone to be a little offended about it too.

So. First of all, let's go over the distribution of GBmag, INFOMERCIAL STYLE


This is because no legitimate magazine actually distribute their magazines by putting them in baggies and throwing one at every house in the neighborhood. That is just not cost effective.
For you who aren't familiar with legitimate magazines, you pay money for them, and they only deliver magazines to people who pay them money. People who pay for magazines usually want to read them (or bought one from a high school kid trying to fund a band trip). If you only want one issue of a magazine, you can pay the cover price.

Real magazines make sure that the only people who get the magazine are paying money for it and actually want it delivered. This is because real magazines need money in order to make their magazine happen.

You can tell that people don't pay for GBmag for two reasons: First of all, because I got one and I sure as fucking shit didn't pay for it. Second of all, because if people paid for the magazine there wouldn't be five of them sitting outside, over 24 hours after they were delivered.

So, a really, really important thing to keep in mind here is that the people who got copies of Giving Back Magazine (and it calls itself a magazine) did not get it because they wanted it. 

Someone out there decided that everyone in my neighborhood should have a copy. The people of Giving Back Magazine do not care who gets a copy. There is no filter process.

So you might be saying, Polly, calm the fuck down, do you get this annoyed about spam email? Was the bold italics REALLY necessary?


This is because it makes the content that much more offensive. Someone decided that the content of the 'magazine' was worthy of being shared with literally everyone.

So, what is GBmag about? It's entirely rich people wanking themselves.

Let's go through it.
(I will use the word "charity" to describe any cause. I'm not going to look up if they're technically charities. You're lucky any of this has pictures)

Front cover: Excellent example of steampunk. Black studded leather jackets and thigh slit skirts, very steampunk. Tiny top hats on headbands, so much the steampunk. The other two look like they at least have heard of steampunk, even if they don't know that you don't wear brown hats with black dresses. I digress. That's a bit nitpicky. No mention of why they're in steampunk

Okay, 8 pages of adverts. Guess that's how they get the funding to just lob copies everywhichway to people who DGAF.
Page 10: We still have no information about who or what GBmag is published by or what exactly they're giving back, and what they took that they have to give back.
Page 10 is the first real page of content. It is advertising local events: Poolside Jazz, the Mexican National Soccer Team playing a game here, and "a day for schools and business to hilight their interests in science, technology...through interactive experiments."
Awesome. Note that none of these events are for charity, or if they are it doesn't sai it. 
Page 11: The concert gala is coming up. The name of the gala chairs, Cheap Trick will be playing, you can win a ring with 90 diamonds. Down at the bottom it mentions a charity and a private concert for people who buy a ticket.
Charity count, 1 charity, 2 (non ad) pages, 50%
Page 12+13: Summer vibes, a guide to fashion of the summer.
Page 14: Quick summary of a charity with a lot of pictures.
Charity Count: 2/4, 50%
Page 16+17: A story about two girls who like fitness, no mention of any kind of charity that they have.
Page 18: Community event where you can meet the mayor or interrogate the police.
Page 20: Summary of a charity event. 1 paragraph and a lot of pictures.
Charity count: 3/8, 38%
Page 21: One line mentions a charity
Charity count: 4/9, 44% 
Page 22: Story about a lady who helped the community
Charity Count: 5/10, 50%
Page 23: Event at the zoo thanking sponsors
Charity Count: 6/11, 55%
Page 24+26+28+30: Paragraph about event and a lot of pictures
Charity Count: 10/16, 60%
Page 32+33: Story about the Red Cross
Charity count: 12/18, 66%
Page 34, Paragraph and pictures
Charity Count: 13/19
Page 35: Ronald Mcdonald house likes its sponsors
Charity Count: 14/20
Page 36: Pictures and paragraph
Charity Count 15/20

Okay, you know what? Those "pictures and paragraph" pages are literally just pictures of people who donated. That's just WE DID GOOD.

Updated Charity Count because I changed the rules:
Charities you can help:  4/21, 19%
Self Wank LOOK AT US WE DONATED: 9/21, 43%

Now, remember that this magazine was sent to everyone. Look at us. We donated.

40-43: Masturbation
Wank: 12/24, 50%
44+45: Event, music in the park, does not support a charity
46+47+49+50: Wank
16/28, 50%, 57%
50+51, story, not about community
52-57, wank
23/35, 66%
58+59, story about community event
Charity count, 6/37, 17%
60-65, wank
25/39, 64%
66+67, story about the ballet's new season
68+69, you guessed it, wank
27/41, 68%

Okay, I'm going to tally the rest and share the final result because chronicling it is getting dull.
Final countdown:
27% stories not about helping the community
16% ways you can help the community (if you have a lot of money)
57% thanking sponsors for events.

*****If you stopped reading, start reading again here!*****

Now, listen up. There's nothing wrong with thanking people who helped the community. There's nothing inherently wrong with the act of being over half thanking sponsors.

But here's where they stopped being okay. It's about the distribution. If there was a magazine ('magazine') given out at events thanking sponsors, or mailed out to everyone who was a sponsor, or even mailed out to everyone who attended an event featured in the magazine, they'd be fine.
Instead, this was worse than mass mailing. This was given out to anyone who may or may not want it.

Then it goes from a thank you to, "Look at us! We're so good!"

A magazine called giving back, that's given to everyone, inherently is given mostly to people who literally could not give a single flying fuck about people they don't know donating to charities they don't care about. This magazine has more articles about people who in no way seem to help or represent the community, than it has articles or adverts about events or ways to help the community.
A magazine called Giving Back that is given to everyone regardless of wanting it should be about inspiring people to give back, and helping people who want to give back give back.

Instead it's about looking at a bunch of rich people who you don't give a shit about doing shit you don't give a shit about.

What a fucking waste of money. I feel sorry for the trees that had to die to make this. They deserve better.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Polly Magic vs Theatre Magic vs Disney Magic

So, over a year ago I went to Disneyland with two people who, at the time, both worked at Walt Disney World, and that got me thinking about the nature of magic.

Not Harry Potter magic, but theatrical magic.

See, I can't turn my anilitical theatrically-trained brain off a lot of the time. I have to know how things work. It drives me completely nuts to watch a magic trick and not know how it works. I watch plays and count the light cues and wonder what's going on in the box, and I figure out where seams are on dresses and wonder is the fabric's bias-cut and is it actual silk chiffon or is it a really good poly-nylon blend because it's not moving like I'm used to.
First time I say Yumimissa it just blew my mind.

So, Disneyland's a place that I just love because every element of it is designed in a way that most theme parks aren't. There used to be a little kids snake-themed roller coaster at Six Flags: Marine World, and the queue had some snakes on it, but Disneyland's got queues that add to the story, and you miss out on some of the story if there's no line and you just breeze through the queue. The cast members (not 'employees') all wear costumes (not 'uniforms') that match what they're doing. There's no generic Disneyland uniform. People who are serving hot dogs in one area of the park are dressed totally differently from other parts of the park. Attractions that are based on live-action movies (Roger Rabbit's thingy with the spinny stuff that I forgot the name of) has cast members with the same cartoony scale of the trims on the costumes, which is one of my favorite parts of that movie.
Which loops back around to, when I was watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I was noticing the trims and going, "Oh, that's cool, they made the cartoon world blend in with the real world by increasing the scale of the trims and prints on the live action character's clothes!" And noticing that for me is more special(?) than watching the movie and not noticing that they blend because they blend seamlessly. Also that movie was made before digital compositing was a thing, so keep that in your mind when you watch it (if you're an analyzer like me, that is!).

The Haunted Mansion is one of my, maybe absolutely my, favorite parts of Disneyland. And I've broken it down as much as I can. I watch other people's filmings of it on youtube and look for all the things I didn't know. I stare at satelite pictures of it. I devour trivia about it. I look to see if I can fail to see the floor in places that I know don't have floors, and knowing that there is no floor but not being able to see that there is no floor is a magical thing for me.

While we were there, we saw a show that I think was called Mickey and the Magic Map, and I was really impressed with it. I didn't want to dissect it for a while, because one of the people I was with found it magical because she didn't know all the behind the scenes and could enjoy it for what it was. But now it's been a while and I'm going to.
Plotwise, Mickey…unpaints a map that Yensid was making and he has to…repaint it? Honestly, I've forgotten the plot of the show. There was Mickey. There were princesses. There was some really, really on-point dancing and more princesses, and Sebastian was there and then there was a giant steamboat on stage. I remember the pictures but I don't remember how they connect.

***<CAUTION: I am now going to start breaking down the aspects of how I saw the show created. If your Disney Magic isn't about knowing how things work, scroll down to the *** break>***

Anyway, the show. There was a live-action Mickey/Mickey actor, who had this really cool thing going on with his face. I think it worked the same way the puppets in Thunderbirds worked, where the face was programmed to move with the backing track and the actor didn't really need to talk. If this is the case, I want to point out the absolute precision that it takes to be that actor. There's no flubbing your line or tripping and stalling things while you catch your balance. Your line is going to come if you're ready or not, so you better be ready.

For over half the show, however, Mickey was a projection on the stage. There was a lot of projection work in this show. It's pretty rare for me to see a stage show with video projections and not think, "Wow, that was better than what could have been done live-action,"
but that's a personal biaS. Problem directors I've worked with think that projections can solve all the budget problems a show has. I guess the projections in Avenue Q were pretty good in that they were mimicking the "Today was brought to you by the letter B" segments of Sesame Street, but if they'd done that live-action it would have had the same effect. That's the nicest thing I can say about projections. If done well, they can be on equal level with live action.

In this case, the CGI of Yensid (the wizard dude) didn't look finished. It looked like a 3D model does before you go about texturing it. It kind of reminded me of the Butt Ugly Martians and that's a horrible thing to be reminded of. It has about the same level of sophistication as the textures in Foodfight!, but much smoother animation. It kind of threw me through a loop because I know that somewhere in Disney are good animators, and while there was nothing in that part of the animation that looked bad, but it didn't look like the animation I expect out of Disney. The rest of the projections was largely filmed live-action of Mickey that moved around the screen. In a couple cases it was really obvious to me that the actor they'd filmed was running in place and then they slid that video across the floor. For the majority of the show, the actors onstage and the projections did not interact. There were cherry blossoms while Mulan was singing and there was a sea theme while Sebastian was there.

I think Sebastian's puppet worked similarly to Mickey's face (breaking that disbelief wall there. To me, they're always actors, always puppets, always animations, always props, always costumes. It's the main reason why I don't watch TV anymore) and like the Team America puppets with the preprogrammed facial movements. I'm not 100% sure of that, though, because the vocals were coming live from the puppeteer, and they matched seamlessly. Anyway, a+ eye blinks on that puppet to whoever made those happen. A lot of puppets have really unnatural eye blinks. That puppet was my second-favorite part of that show. It was really seamlessly controlled, and looked like a single cohesive thing. I found myself focusing on the puppet's face, and not the actor/puppeteer's mouth, even though I knew that the sound was coming from the actor and not the crab. The actor very seamlessly matched the expressions and faces of the puppet, so nothing looked wrong that I could focus on and my eyes kind of slid off him. Very well done.

But my favorite part was watching Mickey (the physical, non-projected one) interact with the blank spot (which was a projection). Mickey wanted to paint the spot because it was the only blank spot on his magical map (I think? Again, I lost the plot somewhere in the last year), so we have this actor, whose visibility is impaired due to costume, running through three levels of stage, making sure he isn't blocking any projection or being projected on, who is holding a long prop, who has no control over when he says his lines, and is acting against nothing. And what it looked like and felt like was Mickey Mouse chasing a sentient ball of black paint. It was seamless.
And the other, WONDERFULLY seamless bit, the moment my mouth actually dropped open, was the transition from projection Mickey to physically present Mickey. There was something with a trap door and an elevating platform going on. I know how it happened. I can picture what it looked like backstage and what the stage manager's book looked like for that sequence. I know the how.
But WHAT happened was that 100% seamlessly they rose Physically Present Mickey out of the stage at the same time that Projection Mickey was rising (and disappearing, because projection) up, with perfect posing. With perfect speed. And I believe Mickey was also moving his arms during this sequence. It matched perfectly. I have never seen a more accurate projection in my life. The precision there, of an actor, who has limited vilibility, is standing on a moving platform, has to match something he can't see and can't feel (no "find your light" when the whole stage is projected onto), with a prop, while moving, and being unable to control his own lines, while also interacting with something that isn't there.
Knowing that all of that went into that makes me feel like I just watched magic.


So, yeah, there's a walkthrough of how I see magic. Of how, to me, a perfect illusion that I know how it happened is more impressive than totally being fooled. I don't think there's real magic anywhere in the world. I know the pingpong ball didn't appear out of nowhere. I know that the secret letter was in the orange the whole time. I know that even though I think I picked my card, the magician knows exactly which card I randomly selected. And even when I know there's only one alive bird and the others are fakes and I know where he put the bird in his sleeve and then pulled it out with his thumb while the other thumb lit the match, even when I know EXACTLY how the trick is done, not being able to see that it was done, that's magic. Knowing it's a trick, but still being tricked.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Betta Care: Your Cycle, your cycle, your lovely cycle

I've talked a bunch about filter bacteria before, but here's a summary for you who missed it.

Fish make ammonia when they live.
This ammonia is toxic to them.
Without a filter, you need to change all of the water in your tank to get the ammonia out.
There are bacteria you can grow that can convert the ammonia into less toxic wastes.
This lets you change only part of the water.

There are two colonies of bacteria that you grow when you make a successful biological filter.
One group converts ammonia into nitrite.
Nitrite is more toxic to fish than ammonia
The second colony converts nitrite into nitrate
Nitrate is much safer for fish to live in than ammonia.

So these bacteria take a while to grow. The first group, that makes nitrite, grow faster than the second group. This means that, while the bacteria are growing, your water will have waste products in your tank that are more dangerous than not having a filter.
The dangers of nitrite spikes are why you should not filter a tank under 2.5 gallons. If you have no filter, the only risk to your pet is ammonia. If you are filtering it, and part of your colony dies (which happens is smaller water volumes because there are fewer resources to go around), your fish are now exposed to more dangerous wastes.

So, how do you grow the bacteria without harming your fish?
First, you're going to want to make sure you have a place for your bacteria to live. If your filter only came with a carbon pad, you're going to want to find a way to put more growing space for the bacteria.
Find the canister filter media/bulk filter media section of your pet store. In this section, you'll be able to find ceramic pellets or noodles (Fluval brand name: Biomax) or filter sponge/filter foam. Now all you need to do is find a way to put that into your current filter, so that water is running over it. I like to keep the carbon pad in the filter, because the filter floss in the pad can help remove particles in the water, and because the filter is often designed with the idea that the pad will regulate the water flow.
If you have a sponge filter, you've already got your biological media. If you have an undergravel filter, your gravel is your biological media.

Some people are going to tell you that you can't leave a carbon pad in your filter forever because it will "leak toxins back into the water."
Who's up for betta fish myth busters?
1) The way activated carbon works is basically that every piece of carbon is constructed with a lot of holes in it and a very high surface area, and an electrical charge. The charge draws certain things to the carbon, and those things lodge in the holes and stay put. Carbon stops being effective when all of the holes have filled up.
2) If you have a brita pitcher in your house, you might have noticed the warning to always change your filter on time. This is because carbon that has filled up can breed bacteria, and if you're a human drinking water you really don't want to be drinking bacteria growing in carbon.
3) Full activated carbon does not let go of what it has collected. Even if it did, the only toxins it would have collected are ones from your tank, ones that would be in your water if you didn't have carbon. So, yes, your carbon is going to grow bacteria in it, once it's full. Do you know what kind of bacteria? Nitrifying bacteria. The kind of bacteria we're trying to grow anyway.
So stop fucking telling people carbon leaches stuff into your tank, because it fucking doesn't.

Okay. So. You have a good place for your bacteria to grow. It's somewhere porous. Now you have to make sure that there is a source of oxygenated water moving over your bacteria. These bacteria need fresh water, water with oxygen, or they die. Almost all filters are designed to draw water through them, so make sure wherever you stuck your biomax or foam is getting water flow.

Make sure to dechlorinate your water with a water conditioner (I like seachem prime, but Tetra's Bettasafe is cheap and available everywhere), because the chlorine in your water can kill your bacteria.

Now you have a good place for the bacteria to grow. So, where do you get them?
All water has small amounts of these bacteria. There's small amounts in the air. If you keep your filter running, and you feed the bacteria what they need, they'll grow.
You can go to the hardware store and pick up some 100% pure ammonia (the kind that doesn't foam when you shake it) and add some drops of it to your water.
You can put a piece of shrimp in a cup of water and leave it there for a few days, and then dump that water in the tank. The shrimp will decay in the water and produce ammonia.
Don't intentionally add ammonia if there's a fish in your tank.
Or you can put a fish in the tank and watch your water parameters like a hawk. This will be between two weeks and two months of frequent water changes.

If you don't want to wait and grow the bacteria slowly, you can speed it up in a couple ways:
You can buy bottled bacteria. Some brands out there don't work and some do. I've had good luck with Tetra SafeStart+ and bad luck with Tetra SafeStart. Fluval makes a decent bottled bacteria.
The other brands usually have anaerobic bacteria in them, which can cycle your tank for a short while before dying. Anerobic bacteria products generally do not get your tank to cycle faster than the slow-cycle method.

Or you can beg/borrow/steal some bacteria from someone's established tank.

There's a few ways you can go about this. If you're putting biomax in your filter, and you know someone who has biomax in their filter, you can ask if you can trade a small handful of your uncycled biomax for their biomax with the bacteria on it. If you only take 1/3rd or less of theirs, their cycle won't crash, and you'll have bacteria to give your cycle a boost start.
You can loan them some filter media or your whole filter, and have them run it alongside their filter. After about a week or two, the bacteria in your friend's tank will have also taken up residence in your filter, which you can put into your tank and have your cycle.
If that doesn't work, ask if you can borrow a porous decoration from their tank: a handful of gravel, the pink castle cave, a silk plant, or something similar. While there won't be as many bacteria on this, there will be more than there are in your unestablished tank, and it can cut cycling time down by quite a bit. When I'm borrowing decor from someone's tank, and I'm cycling with a HOB that has the room, I just shove whatever I borrowed into the filter like it's normal media. If I have gravel, I put it in some pantyhose, knot it tight, and cut off the excess. This keeps all the gravel in one place. Being put in the oxygen-rich water will help whatever bacteria are clinging onto it to grow faster.

What doesn't help a tank cycle faster is taking water from it. The bacteria you need to make a tank's biological cycle complete doesn't live in the water. It lives on hard and porous surfaces in your tank.

If you already have your fish, and you don't have a cycle, read here:
So, there's a couple things you can do. If you don't have fishkeeper friends to steal the bacteria from, you're going to need to build your cycle from scratch.
Some people say you can do a fish-in cycle. This is where you leave the filter running with the fish. Every day, you need to test your water for ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate. You need to use an accurate liquid test kit for this, and you need to change the water every time one of those toxins gets to an elevated level (0.5 for ammonia, 0.25 for nitrite). The changing of the water will slow down your cycling, but it's the only way to cycle with the fish in the water and keep the fish safe.
I don't like that method.
It is much safer to let the fish live in an unfiltered tank for a while. I like to buy a plastic shoe box (big tupperware, sterilite bin, 1.5gal depends on the size of the filter). Then I hook the filter up so that it can run in that bin. Then I get another source of ammonia and add that to the bin. The advantage of this is that I can add ammonia in the cycling tub until it's at 4ppm, which is too high for a fish to live in, but provides the bacteria with ample food. Letting the bacteria live in a high ammoina/nitrite environment makes them grow faster. When you can add enough ammonia to bring the tank to 4ppm before bed, and wake up to 0ppm, your filter's well on its way to being cycled. This usually takes a couple weeks, but it depends on your water, the temperature of your water, how much ammonia you put in it, and a few other factors.

As for how to know if your tank's cycled, you're going to need a way of testing your water parameters. I like the API liquid test kit master freshwater kit. It's about $30. If you're cycling with the fish in, you need a liquid test kit, because test strips can stop being accurate if they're exposed to air. If your fish is directly at risk, you need the precision you know you get with a liquid kit.
If you're cycling outside of your tank, you can use the API 5-in-1 strips and an ammonia test strip. When you're buying test strips, always get the smallest package you can, because being exposed to air will reduce the accuracy of your strips. However, if you're cycling outside of your fish's environment, you don't need extreme accuracy. All you need is to see that when your cycle's done, you have no ammonia and no nitrite, and a good level of nitrates. When that's happened, remove the filter from your cycle tub and put it in your aquarium (but don't add any of the cycling water).
The liquid test kit comes out cheaper in the long run, BTW.

But this looks hard and I thought having a fish was easy. 
If you think you're going to just put your fish in with the filter and change the water a lot, because you don't want to get some water tests, here's what you can do:
First of all, save up for some water tests. Any time your fish is sick, you should test your water. Most of the time, the cause of your fish's sickness is incredibly obvious when you test his water.
Second, because you can't measure your ammonia level in the water, you have to be careful adding it. Get 20% ammonia (which is available at the hardware store) and add 1 drop for every 2/3rds of a gallon of water you're cycling the filter in. This should get you to 4ppm. You cannot go higher than 8ppm or you'll start killing your filter bacteria. They can only tolerate so high of levels.
Now add 1 drop every 3 days for 2 weeks. At the end of 2 weeks, add a drop, and 12 hours later take a water sample to your pet store. Most pet stores (including petsmart) will test it for free. If you have no ammonia, no nitrite, and a good nitrate level, you're good! Make sure you let the employee know that you're cycling the tank without a fish, or they might panic at your nitrate level.
Remember that you still need to change the fish's water while your filter is cycling.

<Insert witty final remark>

Friday, May 20, 2016

Betta Care: My Standard Setup (& Price Breakdown)

There's a lot of different environments that you can keep a betta fish in. 

However, when I'm setting up a new environment for a fish, here's what I get:

TANK: 2.5 or 5 or 10 gallon rectangular tank with lid.
What one I get is usually based on how much space I have to put it. 
Circular and bow-front and other tanks take up more space for the same water volume. Since I have a lot of fish, I rarely have a lot of space to put a new fish tank.
Another consideration is weight. A 2.5gal tank, set up for betta, weighs about 35 pounds. A 10gal tank, set up for betta, weighs about 115 pounds. Make sure your furniture and your floor is ready

(it's that little black thing in the back)

HEATER: In general, I like glass heaters. I'll use paddle heaters for 2.5's. I use up to 10w/gallon (25 watt heater for a 2.5, 50 watt heater for a 5gal) as a guide for maximum heater size.
If it's a submersible heater, I like to put it horizontally by the floor. This lets me drain most of the water without unplugging my tank.

THERMOMETER: If you have a heater, you need a thermometer. I use glass thermometers because they're more accurate than the kind that stick onto the outside of the glass. I prefer sinking thermometers to floating thermometers, but both work. I don't like that floating thermometers tend to free themselves from the wall and run around the tank without you. Here, I've got a magnetic horizontal thermometer, which I really don't like.

 Right, sponge, left, filter
FILTER: For a 5gal tank, I almost always use sponge filters. A sponge filter also needs a air pump and airline tubing with it. I use black silicone airline tubing because I like how it looks. I've also had luck with Tetra's HOB for 5gal tanks
For a 10gal, I either use a HOB filter or two sponge filters.
For a 2.5, I use either a sponge filter and a throttled air pump, or I leave the tank unfiltered if I know I will be able to ALWAYS stay on top of my water changes.
I don't like internal power filters. I've never had bad luck with them, but the idea of having all the electricals INSIDE the tank with my fish always makes me nervous.

Tank, heater, thermometer, filter. If you have a betta fish, your environment needs to have those four things. There is no good reason to not have those four things. They're the bare minimum.

Now, the things you put in it:

Substrate: I like gravel. I tend to have gravel on hand in case I need to set up a tank on the fly, or in case I change my mind about how I want a tank to look. Enough gravel for the bottom of a tank weighs less than enough sand.
You don't need substrate, but I think it looks nice. 

Cave: Your fish needs somewhere to hide. You can buy cool looking caves at the pet store, or you can use a flowerpot or mug on its side. Make sure it has no metallic decoration or paint that would flake off. If it's got a hole big enough for the betta to put his head in, plug it with some hot glue or something, because they can and will get stuck.

Plants: I like silk ones, because I think they tend to be prettier.
I've found that I like the look of heavily-decorated tanks better than sparse ones. I like having at least two plants that are as tall as the tank itself, and then shorter ones for the front. 
I like having plants to cover up where the sponge filter will be, so I don't need to look at it. I've also found that having tall leaves near the surface helps break up the bubbles from the sponge filter

Other: Once you have the tank, filter, heater, thermometer, cave, and enough plants to make the fish feel safe, everything else becomes about what you want. There are people out there who will talk your ear off about human amusement vs fish needs, but I don't think applies here. 
A legitimate comment about putting human amusement above fish needs is if you wanted to keep a fish in a wine glass, or wanted to use fish as decoration for a party. There, you've taken the needs of the fish, and said you don't care about the needs of the fish, because you want to put the fish in a wine glass.
However, when you've made sure you have already met the needs of the fish, and you are making sure that nothing you are doing is harming the fish, there's nothing wrong with setting up a fish tank that you really enjoy looking at. If you want an ornament that looks like Spongebob, or you want a tank backdrop, or you want whatever you think looks cool, feel free to add it. It is not wrong to want your fish tank to make you happy, as long as your happiness is not coming at the expense of the fish's health.
If you run into someone ready to lecture you on that who DOESN'T keep their fish in opaque sterilite bins, send them to me because I'd LOVE to call someone on that kind of hipocracy.

Price Breakdown of my ideal betta setup:
$16 -- Tank (2.5 with lid, Great Choice brand, at both Petsmart and Petco) or
($10 for a 10gal)
$16 -- Heater (Great Choice 15w paddle, Aquaeon 10w Mini) OR
($30 -- Heater) (Marina 25w, Aquaeon 50w, Tetra 50w non-adjustable--for larger tanks)
$3 -- Thermometer (any brand, as long as it's a glass internal thermometer, should run you this price range)
$9 -- Air Pump (the smallest one you can stand the sound of)
$3 -- Airline Tubing
$6 -- Sponge Filter
$4 -- Gravel
$1 -- Flowerpot Cave
$7 -- Plants (Petco has a silk plant set that has 3 small and 3 tiny plants, which would be great for a 2.5, and they have a set that is 3 medium and 3 small plants that'd be a great start for decorating a 5 or 10
Puts you at  $65 for my ideal 2.5 or 5 gal tanks and $73 for a larger. 

Note this is just enclosure and living space. Tack on another
$5 for Seachem Prime, $8 for Omega One, $3 for a fish bucket and $10 for a decent siphon and $6 for a good power strip to plug it all into. 

My analysis here comes up to, if you know you're going to get a betta fish, set aside around $100 to do it with. 

Most of us don't plan on getting betta fish before we do. We fall in love with one at the store, a friend is getting rid of theirs, you rescued it from being thrown away after being used as a party decoration...

In my case,
It has been
260 0
since the last betta fish impulse buy incident

What I've noticed is that, unless you have a big stash of fish-related things hanging around (like I do), it's almost always cheaper to buy all of the things for the fish, and then to buy the fish. This gives you a chance to go price shopping and buy things you need online. 
You might shrug off a lot of things as, "I don't really need that," when you first get the fish, but be aware that you'll end up spending that money anyway, if you want a healthy fish. 

Betta Care: Cup Sickness

First, I'm going to soapbox for a minute here.
My personal rule is that I'll never buy a sick betta fish from a store unless they give me a discount on the fish. I'll also never buy a fish that I know will die. 
This sort of comes from where I used to work, when I was keeper of the betta. 
Basically, stores understand money more than they understand morality. When you're buying something at full price, you're telling the store, "Yes, I like what you're doing, keep doing this," and telling them that sick fish will still sell. When you ask for a discount you're telling the store that the fish is not worth as much when it is sick. Stores do not want product that can only be sold at a discount
Buying a fish that you know is going to die is removing the responsibility of looking at the dead fish and disposing of the body from the store. Knowing that a fish died and looking at a dead fish are two different things. 
This means that if a store won't give me a discount on a sick fish, I have to walk away. I have to leave that fish. It is not easy. It's never easy. But it has to be done, to teach the stores that their fish need to be taken care of. 
I'm trying to find the video of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, talking about buying illegal animals at a market. He's filming this video at a market in some country where people have taken wild animals, put them in tiny cages, and are selling them as novelties or pets or for their fur (I don't remember why). You can watch Steve's heart break as he's explaining that he has room for them at his zoo and he has enough money to buy all of them and give them a home, but for every animal he buys, another one is caught and put in its place in the market. I know that Steve Irwin loved animals more than I am capable of loving anything, and if he could walk away from those animals, I can walk away from a betta at Petco.

This doesn't mean that you should only buy betta fish in perfect health. A little fin rot or a little skinniness is normal from a fish that's been living in 1/18th of a gallon for more than a couple weeks. It does mean, however, that you should consider the quality of life of all the fish in the store before you buy an extremely sick fish.
Soapbox done.

I'm going to call this Cup Sickness. A lot of fish who stay on the shelves at the store, or who live in enclosures too small (LOOKIN' AT YOU, BETTA CUBES, FUCK YOU, BETTA CUBES) get this combination of problems.
~They lose the ability to control how they float. This usually means they're stuck on their sides at the surface of the water, but sometimes means they can't float and are stuck at the floor of their cups. Losing their ability to control their floating is called swim bladder disease, or SBD
~They become either extremely skinny or seriously overweight (or both, which, yes, is possible). A betta's weight is easiest to see when viewed directly from above.
~They often have very poor muscle tone, from not being able to swim in a straight line
~They are often constipated, and may have a swollen tummy.

Important note:
 Cup Sickness

 Cup Sickness
 Cup Sickness
 Cup Sickness


This is called Mystery Bloat or Malwai Bloat. This fish was not having trouble floating or sinking. He's severely swollen in all directions, like he swallowed a marble. His scales are sticking up. This is not cup sickness. Mystery/Malwai bloat is contagious and fatal for betta fish. Do not bring a fish with this sickness into your house.

Back to Cup Sickness
There's four main things that can cause these symptoms. At least three of these causes are usually present in cases of cup sickness.
1) High Ammonia Levels: Betta fish have a very high tolerance for ammonia. They can stay alive in cups with 32ppm of ammonia or higher in them. 1ppm of ammonia is considered the lethal level for ornamental fish, because living in 1ppm of ammonia for 4 days kills 50% of fish. Betta fish can stay alive in higher levels of ammonia, but they do start getting physical damage from it. Living in 4ppm of ammonia is just living in and breathing poison.
2) Small, Cold Living Space: If their bowl is a size of shape where they can't even swim their body length in a straight line, they are going to develop weird muscles. If there's no stimulation in their bowl, they're going to get bored and sit on the bottom. Cold water also makes them sleepy, contributing to cold. Water that is too cold also makes it harder for their digestive system to work properly. The combination of these things means that many fish get seriously overweight, and if they stay in the cup for longer they start losing all their muscles. They become extremely thin and very small.
3) Awful Food: Most betta foods on the market are just kind of crap. Betta fish cannot digest plant matter at all, but a lot of betta foods have grains in them as binders or fillers. Constantly needing to crap out over half the food they eat, combined with the fact that they can't move enough (moving aids in digestion) is just a recipe for serious constipation.
4) Damaged Slime Coat: Betta fish have a mucus-like coating on them, which their bodies make to protect them from physical damage and illnesses. Their slime coat can be damaged if they're sick, but it can also be damaged when they move or are touched too roughly. A lot of store carrying betta in cups don't have the time or skill to make sure the fish are not stressed or roughly handled every time the water in the cups is changed. Children of shoppers like to pick up fish cups and shake them (AND IF I CATCH YOUR KIDS DOING THAT I WILL GIVE YOU A PIECE OF MY MIND) This means that even if the cups are changed two or three times a week to keep the ammonia levels lower, the fish are still being damaged.

Usually, Cup Sickness is caused by 1, 2, and 3, with an occasional appearance by 4. So, your fish has cup sickness, or you bought a fish with cup sickness, or your friend was going to get rid of their fish because it started swimming sideways...whatever it is, you have a sick fish on your hands.

A lot of people are going to tell you that you need to feed a pea to the fish and they'll be fine, bathe them in Epsom salts, blah, blah.

Adding aquarium salt to the water of a bloated fish will make the bloating worse. Throwing that out there.

So, let's go over the basics of treating a sick fish really fast:
First of all, betta fish are small and the wrong treatment can take a very serious toll on their bodies. You don't want to give a fish antibiotics if you're not 100% sure they need them, because they can stress the poor fish's kidneys. A bath in Epsom salts can also stress out their kidneys and their respiratory system, which will already be damaged if they are living in a high-ammonia environment. You don't want to put anything in their digestive tract that can damage it unless you know it is necessary. Unless you are very sure than the betta's condition is rapidly deteriorating, you want to use the smallest and least damaging treatments possible, working your way up until you find the most gentle treatment that works.

 So, the first thing that causes cup sickness is ammonia levels, and the first treatment is to get them out of high ammonia water. This means getting them into a larger tank or tub.
This is how most of my hospital tanks for sick fish look. The plastic is easy to clean, and cheap enough that if a fish had something really contagious I can just never use it for fish again. Having no substrate makes it easier to monitor a fish's digestion (counting the poops). They have something in the tank that they can use for hiding and to not feel so exposed. They have heaters keeping the water at 75-83. Both of these tubs have about 3 gallons of water in them, and no filters.
Unless you have a filter already cycled* that has a very low output, I don't filter hospital tanks for cup sickness. When the fish is trapped at the surface, small bubbles will move them constantly.

Getting them into ammonia-free water is the first step. The next step is to make sure that their water is a good temperature. Get a heater that you can control the heat on, and that has an internal thermostat. Set it to the higher range of their acceptable water levels (I like 80).
Instead of putting 80 degree water in the tank, I try to match the temperature of the cup the fish is in. I then add the fish before I turn the heater on. This changes the temperature of their water much more slowly.

So, they're in ammonia-free water that is heated, and at least three times as long as the fish's body so they can swim. What now?
Now you just wait. Unless you /know/ the fish has not eaten in the past week, don't feed him. Don't put peas in there, don't bathe him or add salt or anything. Put him in good, clean water, heat it to the right temperature, and let him be for a day. Keep checking on him, make sure he's not panting or deteriorating, but just give him space and clean water and give that a chance to do its thing.
In some more mild cases, enough water is all you need.

This is Cinco. Cinco had been in a cup at work, stuck on the bottom and unable to reach the surface without fighting, for five months. Where his swim bladder was, the side of his body had caved in. I thought he had a birth defect and that he would never be able to swim. 
Brought him home and put him in a bowl I'd carefully built to accommodate a betta who can't float. Went to sleep, woke up, and he could swim fine. He's still very sensitive to water currents and ammonia levels, but for the majority of the time he swims like a normal fish. 

Sometimes, though, water isn't all you need.
Once the fish has been in his new water for about twelve hours, it's time to feed him. Make sure that what you're feeding is good quality food. He's probably got all sorts of weird shit in his digestive tract from eating whatever Hikari shit the store's feeding him. I like to limit it to one or two pebbles (I feed Omega One, which has larger pebbles) and no more. Then it's a matter of waiting and counting if he poops.
This is why it's a good idea to not have gravel.
If it's been 24 hours and your fishy hasn't pooped, it's time to feed him something with fiber. A lot of people suggest a pea. Peas are entirely plant-based, so the betta cannot digest any of it. In theory, when he shits that fucker out, it'll take out anything else in his digestive system that might be blocking it.
To feed him a pea, take a frozen pea and microwave it for about 10 seconds. Then use your fingernail to pull off a section about the same size as a food pebble, and drop it in the tank. If your fish is aggressive, desperate, or kind of dumb, he might go right for it.

If you just can't get him to eat a pea (can you blame him?) go to the pet store and get frozen daphnia or frozen mysis shrimp.
Both of these are things a betta might naturally want to eat. Daphnia have a natural laxative effect and mysis shrimp have an exoskeleton that's all fiber. They're also much easier to feed than tricking him into eating a pea.

If you're on day three and the swelling just will not go down, then you can try to give him an epsom salt bath. I pull half a gallon of their tank water out into a pitcher, add two teaspoons of epsom salt and dissolve it.  Then I transfer the fish into the pitcher and watch him like mad for ten minutes. If he starts panting or panicking, I immediately transfer him back. If he stays calm for all ten minutes, I transfer him back to his tank, and then add half a gallon of fresh water into his tank to replace what I pulled out of the tank.

Honestly, this has never failed me. In some cases it's taken weeks, weeks on constant ammonia checks and water changes and baths and poop counting, but all of my cup sickness rescues are now better and normal fish.

And it's worth it.

*We haven't talked about cycling yet, but we will