Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Humble Prawn

All hail the mighty creatures...

I was munching on a prawn sandwich from Sainsbury's this weekend, and as we are expected to do these days I started to wonder where my food had come from. The higher-end supermarkets have fairtrade this and ethically sourced that, but the inch long pink curly things in my lunch could really have come from anywhere. In turn, this got me to thinking about prawns and shrimps in general (it was a slow afternoon), and the fact that we really don't give them a great deal of credit. "But what do I have to thank a prawn for?" you might ask. More than you would think - just a ten minute Google later, we find the plucky crustaceans helping spread peace through the EU, creating Supernovas, knocking in goals, tricking scientists, and even saving lives. Read on friend, and never doubt our seaside-dwelling chums again...

Prawns to Germany?
UK fishing boats poised to go bankrupt were saved earlier this year when the government struck a deal with Germany to exchange 1.5% of the UK's North Sea prawn quota for lucrative sole. 150 tonnes of the pricey flatfish were passed over to struggling smallholders along the Suffolk and Kent coasts, in exchange for the bountiful decapods. The 1.5% quota figure was believed to yield 375 tonnes of prawns for the German fishermen. Almost 200 boats were on the verge of going out of business after the flatfish they normally rely on had their allowances cut. Link

The Shrimps at Wembley?
The Lancastrian seaside town of Morecambe is famous for a few things, and shrimps are one of them. Served in small pots of butter, the tiny brown things are a northwestern delicacy. So much so, that the town's football team is nicknamed the Shrimps (surely beaten only by Preston Grasshoppers in the lists of invertebrate mascots). Formed in 1920, Morecambe FC have dwelled in the lower leagues for their entire history - playing in footballing rockpools, if you will. That is, until last year when they overcame all the odds and gained promotion to the football league for the first time in their history. Even more remarkably, they knocked out local rivals Preston North End in the league cup (two divisions above them), and then went to play ex-Premier leaguers Wolves in the next round - promptly dumping them out 3-1. The greatest result in their history put them in the last 32. Sadly, they then got potted 5-0 by Sheffield United, but every Shrimp has it's day. Morecambe FC

The Supernova Shrimp?
The Alpheid Snapping Shimp that inhabit tropical coral reefs are more commonly known as 'Pistol Shrimps'. These amazing little nippers live in burrows and feed on fish - not by foraging for dead ones as other prawns do - but by nuking unsuspecting passers-by with a shockwave blast that pound-for-pound is the loudest noise in the animal kingdom. A special claw snaps closed in less than a millisecond, generating an acoustic cavitation wave of 80kPa. I have no idea what that means, but they can stun any fish within 4cm. As a by-product, this act also releases a flash of light, which reaches a temperature hotter than the surface of the sun as the pressure bubble collapses. If they ever decide to use this against us, watch out. Happily they mostly live symbiotically with gobies - the shrimp digs a burrow they share and the fish uses it's better eyesight to watch out for danger. They keep in constant contact so they are both safe (presumably apart from when the shrimp is atomising it's dinner). video of Pistol Shrimp in action

Shrimps to the rescue of diabetics?
Scientists in Taiwan are close to finalising trials of an insulin pill for diabetics, which is enclosed within a specially made shell. Insulin is destroyed by stomach acid, meaning sufferers of the disease need to inject themselves directly to bypass the digestive system. But the scientists have found a textured carbohydrate called Chitosan, synthesised from shrimp cells, which is resistant to human stomach enzymes. Tiny spheres of insulin are encased in the prawn armour, and swallowed. They travel through the stomach unmolested, and attach to the walls of the small intestine, where they are absorbed into the bloodstream and their vital contents can get to work. The trials have only been successful for rats so far, and there is a long way to go - but the Taiwanese team are hopeful they can repeat their results elsewhere and use their prawn pill to help diabetics give up the needle. Link

What's that clicking noise?
Scientists are always coming up with brilliant schemes to find things out - and the topic of interstellar space particles is no exception. Neutrinos are launched from collisions between cosmic rays and energy from the Big Bang, and rocket through the universe for billions of years. They have never been detected before, but scientists at University College London came up with the idea of using sensitive microphones to listen to the particles as they plop into the ocean. Apparently even though these minute grains whizz through space as if they were fired from the claws of a hungry pistol shrimp, when they hit the Earth they weigh so little you can hardly sense them. If one of them hit you, you'd never feel it (thankfully). So the boffins gathered a set of high-tech gadgetry off the Scottish island of Rona, to attempt to unlock the secrets of the universe. They were therefore amazed when their hydrophones picked up a multitude of snaps and bangs going off all the time. Were these Neutrinos bombarding us like we never thought? Well, no, as they later found a species of - you guessed it - clicking prawn, innocently firing off their claws at exactly the same frequency. "They are pretty annoying, but fortunately they click all the time, so we can filter them out" said one of the UCL scientists. Link

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More from Mull

There are dozens of islands off the west coast of Scotland, and the ferries hold everything together. Here the Tiree ferry motors past the inshore island of Lismore, as seen from the top of Duart Castle on Mull. Lismore means 'great garden' in Gaelic, as there are over 300 species of plant and 160 species of birds crammed onto it's 12 mile by 1 mile length - along with 160 people. You'd never guess, looking at this view.

Some of the ships don't make it - here at Salen is an impromptu graveyard for old fishing boats. When you drive around Mull, every so often you come across something old and rusting, used as long as possible and then left to quietly fall apart.

Daytrippers queue up to pile onboard the ferry from Iona to Fionnphort. Iona is one of those tiny quiet places that seem deserted apart from hordes of daytrippers mooching about looking at things. Apparently 125 people live there, but they must keep a low profile when the groups wander past their cottages. Iona's a nice place, a few small gardens, nice views, and the famous abbey and graveyard.

Back to Duart Castle, and the ornate chimneys on top of the roof that overlook the Sound of Mull. A few seconds after I took this, we saw a small group of dolphins making their way between the islands. Using the binoculars you could make them out, but they were moving so quickly it was hard to identify exactly what they were. From the battlements of the castle we could clearly hear the sounds of the blowholes as they moved to another feeding ground to try their luck.

The main town on Mull is Tobermory, home to about 700 people. The name comes from the Gaelic Tobar Mhoire, meaning 'Mary's well', but to many younger people it should really be called Balamory. The children's TV series was filmed here, making use of the colourful cottages. Of course, real people live in these buildings, so many have signs outside them saying things like "Bernard the bricklayer is sleeping - don't wake him!" or "Dave the milkman is on his milkround, please don't knock on the door!" (or something, I've never actually seen it so I don't know their names).

Time for some more Gaelic - cala ghearraidh, which translates as "the meadow beside the bay". Over time this was convoluted to 'Calgary', and a nearby castle given the same name. It's after that estate the Canadian city took it's name (one of the officers charged with building a fort in southern Alberta had stayed at Calgary Castle and liked the name). This is my brother walking on the old jetty at Calgary Bay - from which all 200 of the original inhabitants were forcibly removed to the New World to make way for sheep during the Highland Clearances. Nobody knows if any of them made it to southern Alberta, but if they did I bet they won't have appreciated the irony.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Coos on Mull

Mull's a great island, really a fantastic part of Scotland. Famed for it's wildlife - we saw otters, eagles and dolphins - it's the Highland Cow that's the ubiquitous symbol of this part of the world. Here are some pictures I got, which really wasn't difficult as you can just wander up to them - they really don't seem to care. In a few days, I'll put some more pictures up from different parts of the island - but until then...coos!

Friday, September 07, 2007


More of this to come...

Mid-September and the festival craziness is over. Admittedly, I didn't really go to anything, but all the visitors have left Edinburgh and it's time for a holiday of my own. To the Isle of Mull, for a week. Stand by for plenty of remote photos of colourful houses and heeland coos. I'll also have two more short trips away in the next few weeks, before the big one - I'm going back to Tokyo, in October. DUaB hits the road again...

Monday, September 03, 2007

End of the Festivities

One of the calendar dates for Edinburghers is the annual fireworks display over the castle, signifying the end of the festival season. 1.5m tickets for shows and concerts later, the massive influx of tourists and crowds dwindle away and the locals come out for the final festival act. Even with the stunning spectacle going on, other things can be more entertaining, as this young boy in the crowd stares at a funky neon wand-thing bought for him by his parents.

Edinburgh's more famous fireworks happen at Hogmanay, but the festival finale fireworks are also a big draw. A large 'family fun zone' is layed out in Inverleith Park near the botanic gardens, which gives an unobstructed view over to the castle, used as the backdrop. Music for the show, which lasts a good 45 minutes, comes from the Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra.

Fireworks are notoriously hard to photograph, but my trusty credit card-sized Panasonic has a special setting for them, so you've got to give it a go. About a thousand pictures later, these are a few of the best. Some people viewing had tripods and fancy setups, but I always prefer the portable point and click method. OK, it may be rubbish, but at least I'm improving - my photos from the Sydney new year fireworks in 2005 are even more fuzzy.

The mega spectacle was slightly let down by the music - which for some reason this year was American marching band stuff. I've nothing against that kind of thing, but maybe it would have been more suited to a civil war re-enactment than a Scottish fireworks display. And the BBC Radio Scotland hosts were the epitome of tweee local radio presenters, going on at length about the 'carnival atmosphere' and coming out with things like 'it feels as if they are putting on a show just for us' or 'if you live on Castle Terrace and were thinking of turning in for an early night - forget it! Eh, Diane?' Still, easy to block them out.

My abiding memory of the end of festival display is the 2004 show, which happened a few weeks before I moved to Australia. In my old flat on the other side of town, people used to bring chairs and radios and sit in the road (it was a reasonably quiet street), to get the best view of the fireworks. If a car came, everyone would get up and move, then re-plonk themselves in their spots. But the Scottish weather being what it is, the heavy rain and think cloud meant you could see about an inch of sky, just snatching a quick glimpse of the rockets shooting upwards, as they burst inside the cloud invisible to all. Being British, we all stood or sat there anyway, getting soaked, watching a spectacular non-spectacle.

...but despite the show last night being highly impressive, for some of the people watching, there were other more important things going on...