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

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Betta Care: Let's talk decor

Decor is all the stuff in your tank that's not water or your fish.

You have decor for two reasons: 1) To make the tank pretty and something you like having in your house, 2) To replicate the natural environment of your fish.

This means you have three things to keep in mind when you're decorating (aquascaping) your tank: 1) Will it make my betta feel safe, 2) Do I like how it looks, and 3) Will it hurt my fish?

Pshaw, Polly, I'm not just sticking random shit in my tank. I got it from the pet store! I don't need to worry about if it'll hurt my fish. 

Bad news, Italicized Strawman.  A lot of decor you can get at the pet store will hurt your fish. Some stores sell cheap (or overpriced) decor that has paint that'll flake off into the water. Also, betta fish have very delicate fins. Sharp or rough decor can rip right through them.
This is just the stuff that's not currently being used
Luckily, I have a lot of decor hanging around, so I can talk about the good and the bad.

The sand, gravel, or stones you put on the bottom of your tank is called substrate. There's several different kinds, all with good and bad sides.
I like gravel. It comes in a lot of colors, it's cheap, I find it easy to clean, and it's reusable. It's the only substrate you can use with an undergravel filter. I suggest getting about 1 pound a gallon for your tank (though this depends on the shape of the tank).
Some people don't like gravel because it requires a more thorough vacuuming than sand does. You can't grow live plants in gravel, and it's dangerous for bottom feeders like catfish to be on. (side note, don't put gravel in your goldfish tank. They try to eat it and frequently choke).

The cup on the right in the above picture has glass stones. Large acrylic or glass stones are great for unfiltered tanks. They're easy to dump out, rinse off, and put back in the bowl. You don't need to worry about them going down your sink like you have to worry about gravel.

Some people use very large stones, 3"+, in their aquariums. This works really well for goldfish, but betta will try to swim through any little hole, and can get caught. If you use large stones, make sure they are smooth and that there are no spaces a fish could get stuck.

2.5gal tank with sand
Sand is another popular substrate. You can buy a bag of play sand at the hardware store for $4 for 20 pounds, which will be enough for most tanks.
When you're buying sand, make sure you're not getting marine sand. Marine sand has salt in it and isn't good for betta tanks. Play sand and pool filter sand both work for fish.
Sand is difficult to remove, and if you frequently rescape your tanks it is also very difficult to clean up and move. It's easier to bury plants in. You can't use it with a buried heater and you can't use it with an undergravel filter. It doesn't come in any fun colors.
Some people have an easier time cleaning sand than gravel, or feel they do a more thorough job cleaning it. A lot of people like that it's more natural looking. People who have tanks with live plants like sand for planting in it.

You can also choose to have no substrate and just have a bare tank floor. I like this because it makes it easy to tell if the tank is clean and very easy to vacuum, but it's harder to add more water without the decor sliding around.

It's also important to remember that if you're going to divide a tank, you need at least an inch of substrate to bury the bottom of the divider.

Now, other stuff!
I suggest that every betta enclosure has some kind of cave. A cave is anything a fish can swim into and hide. You can buy cool ones that look like pirate ships or skulls, or you can use a mug or teacup or terra cotta flowerpot turned on its side (no metallic decorations, though, as those can be toxic).

I call these guys ornaments. They're hard decor that isn't meant to look like plants. When Twister had the triangular arch in his tank, he liked swimming through it. It's possible to put an airstone under the lighthouse and have bubbles come out the window, which is pretty cool looking.

Here's some betta-specific decor. The left is a betta log, and the right are betta leaf hammocks. If you have an older fish or a fish you've noticed sleeping on other things in the tank, it can be nice to give them a leaf that's meant specifically for sleeping on, or a log for sleeping in. Currently, none of my tanks have betta leafs or betta logs.

Before we go on, there's two types of bases for plant decoration. Bottom left is my favorite, the weighted base. You can bury the end in gravel or sand, or have it just sit on the floor of the tank. I like these because if I accidentally unbury one, it doesn't float to the roof of the tank.
The top and bottom right ones have cups in the bottom that you have to bury to make it stay down. If you have sand, these stay better than if you have gravel. They do not work at all for bare tanks.

Now, on to plants:

Silk plants (which are made from fabric, but not necessarily silk) are my favorite for betta fish. They are soft and don't scratch delicate fins, and a lot of them have big leaves to sleep on.

Here's some soft plastic plants. They don't have sharp edges. Even though some of them are made of hard plastic, they don't have bits that are easy to catch a fin on.
If you want to test if a plant is good for your betta tank, put on some tights and rub the plant on your thigh (or pretend you did). If it snags your pantyhose, it's too sharp.

And here's the sharp plants that I suggest you avoid. If you grab one of these in your hand and squeeze, you can feel it digging into your hand.

When you're actually scapeing your tank, put short plants at the front and tall plants at the back. Petsmart sells these filler carpets that are great for cutting up and adding little decorations. That's what that front piece is. Here Casper's got a clay pot for a cave.

Mr Tipsy's cave is wider than his apartment, and has to be at an angle. Again, note the tall plants in the back and short in the front. This isn't for any health reason, it's just nicer looking in general.

Bo's got a lovely piece of driftwood that I made sure was smooth before I put it in the tank. For the first few months, the driftwood turned the water brown and I had to use carbon in my filter to keep the color away. Now, however, it's done leaching tannin and just looks pretty. Driftwood can help lower your PH, and the tannins they stain the water with don't hurt your fish.

And here's Twister's dragon. The dragon has an airstone in it to let it breathe bubbles, but I disabled it because Twister already had the UGF lift tube putting bubbles into his tank. Twister doesn't have a cave, and instead has a very dense group of tall and short plants in the back of his space. This is because when he had a cave, he'd still hide in the plants if he was scared, so it seemed better to replace the cave with more plants.

Well, that's more than anyone ever needed to know about fish tank decorations. Have fun, folks.

Betta Care: A tank divided

In the last post that I wrote six minutes ago, I covered two things: you cannot (in general) keep betta fish together, and you have to be very careful when keeping betta fish with other fish.

So what if you want nine betta fish but you don't want to change nine tanks, and buy nine filters and nine heaters.

Some people really hate split tanks, but I love them.

The dangers of split tanks: fish getting around or over the dividers and hurting each other, diseases traveling through shared water, betta seeing each other and being constantly stressed.

The advantages of split tanks: fewer filters, fewer heaters, fewer water changes, fewer lights. Easier to keep parameters stable for several fish, fewer water tests, less space. A larger water quantity makes waste build up more slowly.

So, first of all, what's a good divided tank?
Here's a hint, it's not this thing.

A divided tank is a tank that has a barrier in it to keep the fish apart. The fish all live in the same tank, and that tank only requires the maintenance of one tank, but can have more than one living space in it.  
10 gallon tank, divided to have two living spaces and a small space in the middle.

There are two dangers that you find in divided tanks that you don't find in solo tanks. The first is that if your betta fish somehow gets around or over the divider, there's a good chance that he'll kill his tank-mate. The other concern is that if one fish in a divided tank gets sick, every fish gets exposed to it. Instead of losing one fish, you can lose several. If one heater fails, all your fish will be too cold. You're putting all your eggs in one basket.
Both of these are 100% avoidable, however. Proper quarantining is an important part of any shared tank. Quarantining means you keep the new fish in his own tank for ~30 days, to make sure he doesn't have any disease that could spread. Proper care for a community tank means not putting in any fish you know is sick, or you know was exposed to a disease.
You can keep bettas on their side of their dividers by building the dividers properly. The dividers you see at the pet store don't work for betta fish. Those dividers are built for fish who don't have the biological desire to murder everything they see. The good news is that you can easily build the kind of divider that does work for betta fish, and they're cheaper than the ones at the pet store. 
A 20 gallon long tank divided 4-ways

First, you need to think about how big of a tank you want. I recommend having at least 4 gallons of water per fish. This is based on the total water volume. The tank might be divided, but they'll all be breathing the same water, so you need to have enough of that. The other concern is space. Take a very critical look at the size that each apartment will be when it's divided. It needs to be deep enough, wide enough, and tall enough. For this reason I say that a 20-long tank can be divided into four, but a 20-high tank should only be divided into two.
Also you need to take into account your fish. If you have a big guy, he might not be comfortable in 1/4 of a 20-long, but other fish will have plenty of space. If you have a very aggressive fish that will spend hours trying to attack the shadow on the other side of the divider, he might not be happy in a divided tank. Just because a stranger on the internet said it'd be okay for most fish doesn't mean it'll be good for every fish.

I make mine out of plastic needlepoint canvas, the spines to report covers, and a shitload of aquarium silicone. You cut the canvas to the shape you need, put two or three layers together. Then you snap one report spine on the top, and silicone two more spines into the tank. Then you slide the canvas into the spines, and cover the bottom of the divider with gravel or sand. There's tutorials out there that go over this exact process.
Center two apartments of the divided 20. The left and right walls are needlepoint canvas dividers

Using silicone to attach the dividers to the walls of the tank is very important. Betta are crafty little fuckers and they can find their way through the gaps in the wall. It's very important that you also use aquarium silicone. The bottle just saying 100% silicone isn't good enough. Go to the hardware store, find an employee, and ask for aquarium-safe silicone. Then make sure it says "aquarium safe" on the packaging. If they don't have it, buy it online. A lot of silicones that you can find in the hardware store have anitfungal additives that will kill your fish. This is a case where buying the wrong product will kill your fish, so be careful.

If there won't be a lot of jump space when your tank hood is closed, you only need one divider. If there will be a lot of space, you can use two dividers with a little space to catch an angry jumper.
Divided 10 with a thermometer in the jump space

If you have a jump space, you can keep your heater or your HOB intake in the jump space, to leave you with more space in the living space.

If you want to temporarily un-divide your tank, you can slide the needlepoint canvas out and leave the spines glued in. This will let you re-divide it without having to drain the tank and glue in new spines. If you decide that you want to un-divide it long term, you can remove the silicone cleanly with a razor. 

As a final note, I've been told that you should not keep a male and female betta in a divided tank, because being close to each other will keep them constantly ready to breed and stress them out. I have never tested this, but if you are interested in keeping a boy and a girl in the same divided tank, this is something you should research first.

And remember that a healthy fish is prettier than the prettiest tank in the world!

Betta Care: Community Tanks

Lots of people say betta are solitary fish, and this is largely true.
Under no circumstances should you put multiple male betta in the same living space.
Under no circumstances should male and female betta live in the same space for long term.
Keeping females together requires very specific setup and some generally chill-headed (for betta) fish, and should only be done if you have experience with betta fish.

I'm going to repeat that in bold text to make sure you get it. Under no circumstances should a male betta fish live in the same living space as any other betta fish.
Betta fish do not like to live with each other.
Betta fish that live with each other frequently kill each other.

Got that? 
On the other hand, betta fish can have tank-mates. 
When you're looking for a tank-mate for your fish, you need to take into account both what your fish needs to be happy and healthy and what the other members of the tank need to be happy. 
Full disclosure: I do not have experience keeping betta fish with other fish. Most of what I am sharing here is synthesis of other people's research and experience, and not my own research and experience. Before you put other animals with your betta fish, make sure you do your own research. I do not know your fish or your life and I cannot do your research for you.

Tank-made checklist:
Is my tank big enough? Just don't try to do a mixed-species community tank in a tank smaller than 10 gallons, and I suggest going bigger. There's several reasons why. First of all is the bio-load. All living animals that you might put in a tank produce waste. Your filter (and you need one for a community tank) takes that waste and makes it into less toxic nitrate, but nitrate is still toxic in large amounts, and you don't want it building up too fast. Apart from the nitrate, the waste your tank inhabitants produce creates solid waste on the floor of the tank and in the gravel. If you have too many inhabitants, these things will build up faster. 
The other reason why you need a larger tank is that different species of fish (or other animals) do not always like living in close quarters with other species. Everyone needs room to have their own territory.  Some species are also social (zebra danio) or schooling (cory catfish, tetras), and you need enough room for six or more of them.
In general, betta like to occupy the top 2/3rds of the tank, so they do better with animals that like to stay in the bottom part of the tanks. Because of this, I suggest going against danios (including their glofish cousins), who also like the top of the tank.

Are the living requirements the same? Betta fish need water that's 76F-82F. They need tanks with a decent amount of cover. They need to reach the surface to get air. 
Therefore, if the tank-mates do not also do best with water in the 76-82 range, or if they need to not have dense planting, or if their other living requirements do not match the betta's requirements, you should not put them in the same tank. For this reason, I suggest against African Dwarf Frogs. They need cooler water.

Are they going to provoke the betta? Betta fish like to attack anything quick moving or brightly colored, or anything that shows it too much interest. For this reason, I do not recommend putting a betta with neon tetras, who are very bright. Glofish are out. Lyretail mollies have big fins that draw betta's attention.

Are they going to attack the betta? The answer to violence is not more violence. The answer to an aggressive fish is not another aggressive fish. 

Betta tankmates that I've personally had good luck with: ghost shrimp (and I've heard that other nonaggresive shrimp like bamboo shrimp work very well, though cherry shrimp can become dinner if your fish is so inclined), pond snails and other snails that are small (including mystery snails and apple snails, if you have a backup plan for when they outgrow your betta tank), and marimo. Due to the extra stress of making sure that everyone in the tank gets along, and the fact that some days I work a lot of hours and don't get a chance to look at my tank beyond feeding everyone, I don't keep community betta tanks with other fish. I'd rather just have more betta fish. I do really like ghost shrimp with betta, though. They're exciting to watch and generally stay at the bottom of the tank. They're willing to defend themselves if the betta gets curious, but they rarely actually attack the betta. Marimo are not animals. They are balls of algae. However, you can give them a name and talk to them, and they never disagree with your betta. Marimo are the perfect pet.

Now you need to ask more questions:
How aggressive is your betta? Some betta fish are very aggressive, and some aren't as aggressive. If your betta flares at everything that goes past, he's probably not a good candidate for tank-mates.
If you are purchasing a betta specifically to put in a community tank, consider getting a female. While aggressive, the female betta are generally less aggressive than the males. While your fish (boy or girl) is in quarantine for 30 days (which you should do with every fish that you will put in a community tank), you'll get to know them and their aggression levels. If you buy a betta to put in a community tank, be ready to give them their own environment or rehome them if it is clear that they are too aggressive for the community tank.

But what about sorority tanks?!
Lots of people like to crap on sorority tanks, but I have seen them done well. A sorority tank is a large (20long or larger), very densely planted tank, with at least six female betta in it. Once you establish the tank, the girls will establish a pecking order and territories, and stop trying to kill each other. It's very important in a sorority tank to carefully monitor it for stress or bullies, and to be ready to have a place to have an overly-aggresive stay in a solo tank (or ready to be rehomed), in case things don't work out.
I do not suggest a sorority for a first tank. I think you need experience learning how to identify healthy fish and stressed fish and sick fish before you try something this complicated.

In fact, I do not suggest a community tank with betta and other fish as your first tank. In a community tank, you need to know what it looks like when your fish are hungry or sick or stressed. You need to know how to be in tune with how your fish is feeling, before setting up an environment where that is likely.

Remember, when you're an aquarium owner, keeping the fish healthy and happy, and meeting their needs, is much more important than what you think will look good. You are in charge of their entire ecosystem, and you owe it to them to have it be a safe and healthy one. If you want fish that will do whatever you want, that you can look at without needing to worry if they'll fight or become stressed, well, there's a lot of iPad apps for that that you might want to check out instead of hurting real fish.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Betta care braindump

I could talk for pages about betta enclosures, and I will later. Having a good setup makes having a healthy betta much easier.

For now, if it's under 1 gallon, get a bigger one. If it doesn't have a heater, get one (that's not the Aqueon betta bowl heater). If it doesn't have fake plants (the kind that aren't too scratchy) and a cave to hide in (terra cotta pot on its side works well), get that too.

Quick few myths, busted: Plants don't filter your water. Snails and shrimp don't filter your water. If you have a filter, you still need to change your water regularly. There is no maximum size for a betta tank, as long as there aren't too many big open spaces.

Food: Bettas are carnivores and can't digest plants. Because of this, you should find a food with a high meat content and a low grain/filler content. I feed my fish Omega One Betta Buffet, because it's got quality ingredients and is available at petsmart.
Because your betta will crap out all the non-meat parts of their food, feeding a pellet that's high in meat and low in fillers will make your fishy poop less, which is important to keep in mind if you have a smaller or unfiltered enclosure.
One of the top betta killers is obesity. Also, if you feed too much, the uneaten food will sit on the bottom and foul up your water. Pellet size differs between brands, but if I smush all the food I feed in one feeding together, it is about the size of half a pea. Their stomachs are about the size of their eye. With Omega One sized pellets, I feed four to six pellets, once or twice a day.
You can suck uneaten food off the floor of your tank with a turkey baster (one that is kept exclusive to fish and not used for cooking).

Water: You can't use the water out of your tap without treating it. Water conditioner is cheap and works almost instantly. I use Seachem Prime because it's very concentrated, but I also use Tetra AquaSafe/BettaSafe, because it's readily available. Stress Coat+ has aloe in it, which is good if you've moved your fish or if he's sick, but it's also expensive.
Prime also can detoxify ammonia for short periods of time, so I add about 2 drops per gallon every other day in an unfiltered tank. This does not replace the need for weekly water changes.
Betta can adapt to a wide range of PH and KH levels, so don't worry about trying to change them. The chemicals available for changing your PH are actually pretty bad for bettas, because it makes an unstable PH, and they need a stable PH more than they need the technically 'correct' PH.
If you're really concerned about a high PH, adding a piece of driftwood to your tank can help, and looks pretty.

Water Changes: Water changes stress your fish, so it's important to not do them more than necessary.
If your tank has a filter, you don't need to change out all the water. On a 5-gal tank I change about 1/2 the water every week or every other week. On my 20-gal that has 4 betta in it. I change about 1/4 of the water every week or every other week.
If your tank does not have a filter, or is under 2.5 gallons, you have to change all the water every week. You cannot skip a week, and being even a few days late can have bad effects. In a 1 gallon tank, I suggest changing the water every 5 days.
If you want to know FOR SURE when you need to change the water, pick up a liquid ammonia test and test your water daily. If the ammonia level reaches .25, change your water. If your ammonia level doesn't reach .25 in a week, still change your water, because your level of dissolved solids will be pretty high by that point.
If you have a filtered tank, use a liquit nitrate test kit. You need to change bi-weekly or when your nitrate level reaches 40, whichever comes first.
To do a partial water change on a filtered tank, use a siphon and a bucket dedicated to fish. I like the kind of siphons with a priming bulb, and I like the 5-gallon bucket I got at the hardware store. Use the siphon to clean the gravel in your tank too.
To do a full water change on a small tank, start by getting the fish out of the tank and into a cup (the one he came in will work well). I don't use a net, I just scoop with the cup. Then dump out all the water, rinse out your bowl, fill the bowl up with water and dechlorinate it. After the bowl's halfway full, add your rocks and plants back in. If you add your rocks before your water, you can break your bowl if it's made of glass. I find that larger, marble-sized rocks work better than pea gravel for unfiltered tanks, because they're easier to dump out and put back in.
On my 2.5 gallon unfiltered tank, I leave my fish in and siphon the water down to as low as I can go without upsetting the fish, and then adding in dechlorinated water.
Always try to match your water temperature with the temperature of the water the fish was in. Be careful not to add too hot of water--remember, 82 degree water (the max temp for a betta) will still feel cool on your wrist. After a while, you'll be able to judge the temp by feel, but for the first month or so, use your thermometer to check.
Some people will tell you to do 100% water changes every day for unfiltered tanks. I find that the stress of changing the water every day doesn't outweigh the consequences of living in a low-level ammonia environment, and that twice a week is sufficient.

That's all I've got for tonight, so let me know what else y'all'd want in a care sheet and I'll add it.

Betta Care: To Filter or Not To Filter

To filter, or not to filter, why you might need a filter, and what filter to use.

Unlike a lot of people who give out betta advice on tumblr, I have quite a bit of experience keeping betta in unfiltered bowls. I maintained all the displays for work (unfiltered bowls between .5 and 2 gallons, plus ~60 fish in cups at any given time), and watched fish in various sizes of enclosure suffer health consequences based on being in those containers. I have firsthand experience when I say what my minimum size is for a healthy betta.

I'm going to make a controversial statement here when I say that I don't think betta fish absolutely need to be in a filtered setup. One of my fish has lived in an unfiltered/100%water change weekly 2.5 gallon tank for several months now, and is healthy. He's not just suffering no consequences, he is actually healthy. When I got him, he had developed severe swim problems due to being in a high-ammonia environment for months. He still has problems floating and swimming, and would not be healthy if he was in a tank with a water current.
On the other hand, I had a very large betta named Steve who was living in a 1-gal bowl when I got him. I moved him to a filtered 10-gal tank and his fins doubled in length, he developed iridescent scales, and his pectoral fins went from being stick-thin to long and flowing. Steve couldn't live to his full potential in a small bowl.
What I'm trying to get at here is that blanket statements about "this is acceptable" and "this is not acceptable" don't apply to all fish. Environments that are good for some fish are not good for others. It's important to learn what a healthy betta looks like and acts like, and to compare those betta to you to determine if your environment is meeting your fish's needs.
I'm going to use the word "tank" for any enclosure that you have your betta in. This information applies to tanks, bowls, plastic shoe boxes, wherever your fish is.

A couple myths: plants, shrimp, and snails do not filter your water. Shrimp and snails actually add to the bio-load of your tank, and produce the same waste that your fish does. Plants like peace lilies  and lucky bamboo are not meant to live underwater. Parts of them will decay and detract from your water quality. Marimo balls only grow .5cm a year, making them too slow of photosynthesizers to remove any wastes in your water, though they don't decay the way peace lilies do.
This is not to say that any of those are bad for your tank. All I'm saying is that having those in your tank does not mean you need to change your water less frequently.

I went over this in another part of care, but there are a few things that also contribute to your water quality worth mentioning again. If you are feeding your betta food with a high content of plant fillers and a low content of meat products, your fish will poop more frequently and produce larger poopies. In a small environment, this will make your water quality deteriorate faster. If you overfeed your fish, uneaten food will stay on the bottom of your tank. This food will decay and contribute to poor water quality.
Also, all betta tanks should be heated so that the water stays between 74-82 degrees. Living in an unheated bowl will drastically reduce your fish's life span by months or even years; you're literally slowly killing him. I'll go over heaters in another post, and just now leave you with the advice to research any heater on Amazon before you pick it up. Some heaters are unstable and have a tendency to consistently overheat and kill your fish.

So, to filter, or not to filter?

Why do we filter?
When your fish breathes, pees, and poops, it creates ammonia. Fish cannot live in an environment that is high in ammonia. If you have a filter, you grow a colony of bacteria that eat the ammonia and produce nitrate. This colony is called your biological filter. Nitrate is much less toxic to your fish. A good filter colony makes sure that your fish live in an ammonia-free environment.
If you have a functioning biological filter, you do not need to change all of the water in your tank every time you change your water. If you do not have a biological filter, you will need change all of the water every time you change the water. Because you do not need to change all the water every time you do a water change, you can have a tank that's 10 or 20 gallons without using 20 gallons of water every week to maintain it.

Why would we not filter?
You need at least 2.5 gallons of water in order to support enough bacteria to make a functioning biological filter. This means that even if you have a filter running, if your tank is less than 2.5 gallons, you do not have any biological filtration.
Betta fish come from still (not small, not dirty, still) water and don't like moving water. Therefore, if your tank is too small to support a biological filter, it is better to not have a filter running in a betta tank.
Betta fish do not produce much waste, and they get oxygen by breathing air at the surface. Because of this, they do not need water aeration, and a 1-gallon tank will not reach dangerous levels of ammonia in a week, so it is possible to keep their water livable without a filter. Other types of fish cannot live in conditions that betta are comfortable with.

What about other kinds of filtration?
Technically, a filter can provide three kinds of filtration: biological, mechanical, and chemical. The really important one is biological. Your biological filter keeps your water breathable for your fish. If your filter doesn't provide biological filtration, it's pretty useless for betta.
Mechanical filtration takes all the floaty particles of fish poop and uneaten food and plant decay, and it holds all those pieces in one place (usually on the filter sponge or filter pad). No matter how good your mechanical filtration is, it does not remove dirt from the water. Your tank is a closed system and the only way you can get dirt and waste out is to change your water. Shrimp and snails provide limited mechanical filtration, in that they like to eat waste food, but they still poop out what they eat and add it back to the ecosystem.
Chemical filtration means carbon. In the same way that you can buy a brita pitcher to make your tap water taste better, you can put a carbon pad in your tank to absorb some impurities. Pet stores will tell you that carbon is the best thing ever. Pet stores tell you that because your carbon will run out and you'll have to spend more money on carbon every month. If you have medicated your tank, or if you have driftwood in your tank that's staining your water brown, carbon is useful to have. Otherwise, I recommend you don't have carbon in your tank. When you throw away your carbon pad, you'll also be throwing away a lot of your biological bacteria colony, which is bad.
Despite what some people tell you, a full carbon pad does not leak toxins into the water. It drives me absolutely nuts when people say that and I will go fuckin' science on your ass if you demand  to know why.

Should I filter my tank?
Be honest--How on top of water changes are you? An unfiltered tank can get toxic or lethal levels of ammonia very quickly without changes. If your tank is 1 gallon, I suggest changing the water twice a week (once every 4-5 days, really). If your tank is 2.5 gallons, you need to change it every single week. You can't miss a week, and you really shouldn't miss a couple days. You need to be on top of your water changes every single week. If you travel a lot, work intense hours, get sick, stay at your friend's house a lot, and might miss a water change, consider getting a larger tank with a filter.
Is your tank 2.5 gallons? If it is, you can go either way on the filter. However, due to the smaller water level, your biological filter is more likely to "crash" or "hiccup," which means some of your bacteria will die and stop filtering the water. If that happens, nitrite can build up in your tank. Nitrite is more toxic to your fish than ammonia. If you have a filtered 2.5 gallon tank, be ready to check your water quality frequently.
Is your tank too big to change all the water at once? If it's going to be difficult for you to change all the water, get a filter. With a working biological filter, you only need to change 15-25% of the water every week.

What kind of filter should I get?
Remember that the most important kind of filtration for betta tanks is biological filtration. To grow your biological filter colony, you need porous places for the bacteria to live, and a source of oxygen for those bacteria. The bacteria don't float freely in your tank water; they grow on surfaces like your filter media, your gravel, and your cute pink castle your betta swims through. Most grow on the filter media, because the point of a filter is to make a good habitat for your bacterial colony.

My favorite filter for betta fish are sponge filters.
A sponge filter is a piece of sponge that is built so you can hook an air tube to it. You use an air pump to make bubbles in the sponge, and the bubbles rising out of the exit tube creates suction that draws new water through the sponge. The bacteria grow on the sponge, and the sponge provides some limited mechanical filtration. Sponge filters make very small currents (just the bubbles from the exit tube), which are good for betta fish. They're cheap too, but you can't buy them at pet stores. I get mine on Amazon. If you have shrimp in your tank, be ready for them to spend a lot of time eating off of the filter sponge.

For larger tanks, I'm a fan of undergravel filters.
Undergravel filters aren't super popular in the fishblr community, but I have never had a problem with mine as long as I clean the gravel properly.
An undergravel filter works similarly to a sponge filter. You use rising bubbles to pull water through your gravel on the bottom of your tank. The bacteria grow on the gravel.
There are two kinds of undergravel filters that I've seen. What I'm going to call "real" undergravel filters have a grating that covers the entire floor of your tank, and two lift tubes/bubble tubes (one at each end). A lot of cheap tanks now have what I call "fake" or "nonfunctional" undergravel filters, which have a very small grating that covers maybe 25% of your tank floor, and has one lift tube (usually in the center). The fake undergravel filters don't get enough lift from the central tube, and don't pull enough oxygen through the gravel to support good colonies. If your tank came with one of these, I suggest you throw it out and get a sponge filter.

If you want a filter that you can buy at the pet store, I suggest modifying a HOB or hang on back filter.
These are cheap and maybe came with your tank. It's got a tube that goes into your tank, pulls water into the filter, and returns the water to the tank via a little waterfall-looking thing.
Most HOB filters come with a carbon pad, which isn't a great home for bacteria. However, if you go into the canister filter section of the filter aisle, you'll find all sorts of great biological media. You can get sponge, ceramic noodles, bioballs, whatever they're selling that has good bacteria growing properties. Then just shove whatever it is you bought into the empty space in your HOB where your carbon used to be.
If you can find a good one, I suggest getting a nice prefilter sponge. This is a sponge you can put over your intake tube on your HOB. It reduces the current for your betta and provides even more places for bacteria to colonize. If you have a sponge with a lot of surface for bacteria, you don't need to put anything in your HOB, and use the sponge for all the filtration.
Some HOB filters have too high a water current coming from the water return waterfall, and you will need to baffle it. A lot of people use water bottles (google for a tutorial) and I've had good luck putting filter floss in the output.
If you're limited to the filters Petsmart sells, I think the HOB is the best option.

Internal filters can work, and your tank kit might have come with one. These work like a HOB and either use a propeller or rising air bubbles to draw water into it, and then return the water through a little chute. I don't like them because I feel like they take up a lot of space in the tank (compared to a sponge or HOB), the water flow is usually difficult to control, and they're built to take carbon. Some of them have electronics that remain submersed in their plastic housing, and I worry what'll happen to the fish if that leaks and gets water on the power supply.

If your tank kit came with an undergravel or an air-powered internal filter, the easiest thing to do is to buy a sponge filter, because you've already got the air pump and the tubing.

There's other kinds of filters, like canisters and fluidized sand, but they're expensive and usually overkill for a small betta tank.

Up next I guess I'll just ramble about how to decorate a betta tank for ten pages and then pretend I wrote something deep!