How to write about Pakistan

From the current issue of Granta devoted to Pakistan:

Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical piece from Granta 92, ‘How to Write About Africa’, is the most popular article on our website. When we were digitizing our archive, Binyavanga gave us permission to put his article up, but only on the condition that it remain free to read and not behind a paywall. ‘Always use the word “Africa” or “Darkness” or “Safari” in your title’, it begins – and goes on to send up every imaginable cliché of writing about Africa.

An equivalent for Pakistan seemed only appropriate for our current issue. Below, four contributors to the issue – Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Kamila Shamsie – tell you, in case you’re thinking of starting out, How to Write About Pakistan.

This is one of the four bits:

12198090531909861341man%20silhouette_svg_med Lying in my bed at 7.48 a.m., laptop on lap. Too much writing in this position over the years has given me neck-aches. I’d do yoga if it weren’t such a non-Pakistani sounding activity. For a Pakistani writer to do yoga feels like questioning the two-nation theory. So I complain, which brings enormous relief and a sense of oneness with my subject matter.

When it comes to Pakistani writing, I would encourage us all to remember the brand. We are custodians of brand Pakistan. And beneficiaries. The brand slaps an extra zero onto our advances, if not more. Branding can be the difference between a novel about brown people and a best-selling novel about brown people. It is our duty to maintain and build that brand.

I know I don’t need to reiterate here what brand Pakistan stands for, but since my future income-stream is tied up with what you all do with it, I’m going to do so anyway. Brand Pakistan is a horror brand. It’s like the Friday the 13th series. Or if you’re into humor, like Scary Movie. Or Jaws, if nature-writing is your thing.

Anyway, the point is that people from all over the world have come to know and love brand Pakistan for its ability to scare the shit out of them. Whatever you write, please respect this legacy. We’re providing a service here. We’re a twenty-storey straight-down vertical-dropping roller coaster for the mind. Yes, love etcetera is permissible. But bear in mind that Pakistan is a market-leader. The Most Dangerous Place in the WorldTM.

It took a lot of writing to get us here, miles of fiction and non-fiction in blood-drenched black and white. Please don’t undo it. Or at least please don’t undo it until I’ve cashed in a couple more times. Apartments abroad are expensive.

More here.


Robert Paul Wolff in The Philosopher’s Stone:

ScreenHunter_05 Sep. 28 15.17 The events at Harvard on Saturday were fascinating, distressing, and exhausting. Today, I am going to write about the controversy surrounding the remarks of Martin Peretz and Harvard’s decision to accept the $650,000 or so donated for a scholarship fund in his honor. Tomorrow, I will write about a number of ways in which I found the experience personally illuminating and instructive.

The event was a daylong celebration of the 50th anniversary of an undergraduate interdisciplinary program at Harvard, Social Studies, of which I was the first Head Tutor in 1960-61. The program was stocked with eminent people — Adele Simmons, former president of Hampshire College and also of the MacArthur Foundation, Amy Gutman, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Michael Walzer, world-famous political theorist now at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, Seyla Benhabib, Professor of :Political Science and Philosophy at Yale, E. J. Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, and so forth. The program consisted of a morning panel, a lunch at which I was listed as “principal speaker,” an afternoon panel chaired by Walzer, and then a lecture by Amy Gutman, who was introduced by her opposite number, Drew Faust, president of Harvard. There was an evening reception that Susie and I skipped because it was too far for Susie to walk.

The entire event was accompanied by a very vocal protest by a large number of Harvard students carrying beautifully made signs on which were printed a selection of the ugly and appalling things Peretz has said and published over the years. A great video of the protest is already up on YouTube, and I encourage everyone to view it.

Readers of this blog know that I anguished a good deal about whether I should even attend the event. In the end, I decided to do so because the program was altered so that no announcement of the scholarship fund would be made at the lunch at which I was scheduled to speak. I learned on Sunday morning that there was a small dinner Friday evening at which the honoring of Peretz was done. I was not invited to it.

More here.  You can see the YouTube video below, and read the Crimson article here.

Tuesday Poem

God's Small Beings


…… Mim.
in the Order of the Prophet
an invisible singer of my faith
in the Order of Love
but with
only the caprice of a gulp and
this tiny hyacinth entwines my crystal body.


Man, sinks in the mirror
……………… grows up in the mirror.


a reverse beginning
on the way of lost voyagers of dreams.


……. a burnt stub
……. her heart lost to
………………….. the powder compact.


When the grey curtain of the nights
from the verdant stature of panicles
……………………………………… fell
the Meteor of lust
……………………………………… was also
……………………………………………….. dead.


Without shoes
bare feet, his heart
……………………… man moved through life,
through sand,
………………… smoke
………………………….. and
………………………………… fog
………………… woman had already arrived.

by Robab Moheb
ânâme kuchàke xodâ
publisher: Libris, Teheran, 1996
translation: 2008, Sam Vaseghi

More of God's Small Beings

Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?

Johann Hari in The Independent:

ScreenHunter_04 Sep. 28 12.35 Gideon Levy is the most hated man in Israel – and perhaps the most heroic. This “good Tel Aviv boy” – a sober, serious child of the Jewish state – has been shot at repeatedly by the Israeli Defence Force, been threatened with being “beaten to a pulp” on the country’s streets, and faced demands from government ministers that he be tightly monitored as “a security risk.” This is because he has done something very simple, and something that almost no other Israeli has done. Nearly every week for three decades, he has travelled to the Occupied Territories and described what he sees, plainly and without propaganda. “My modest mission,” he says, “is to prevent a situation in which many Israelis will be able to say, ‘We didn’t know.’” And for that, many people want him silenced.

The story of Gideon Levy – and the attempt to deride, suppress or deny his words – is the story of Israel distilled. If he loses, Israel itself is lost.

I meet him in a hotel bar in Scotland, as part of his European tour to promote his new book, ‘The Punishment of Gaza’. The 57 year-old looks like an Eastern European intellectual on a day off – tall and broad and dressed in black, speaking accented English in a lyrical baritone. He seems so at home in the world of book festivals and black coffee that it is hard, at first, to picture him on the last occasion he was in Gaza – in November, 2006, before the Israeli government changed the law to stop him going.

He reported that day on a killing, another of the hundreds he has documented over the years. As twenty little children pulled up in their school bus at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten, their 20 year-old teacher, Najawa Khalif, waved to them – and an Israel shell hit her and she was blasted to pieces in front of them. He arrived a day later, to find the shaking children drawing pictures of the chunks of her corpse. The children were “astonished to see a Jew without weapons. All they had ever seen were soldiers and settlers.”

More here.

The Human Hard Drive: How We Make (And Lose) Memories

David Hirschman in Big Think:

Memory Dr. Antonio Damasio, a behavioral neurobiologist at the University of Southern California who has studied the neural systems behind memory for years, says that memory is actually a complex process where the brain scatters information across its neurons and then reconnects it using sequential cues. Our brains are not at all like video cameras, he says; they don't have the capacity to keep exact film-like representations of everything that happens in our lives. Instead, the brain records conjunctions of details and events in what Damasio calls “convergence/divergence zones.” When we experience something, our neurons create a code to represent a series of disparate facts about the scene or idea that live in different areas of our brains. Recalling specific events or “memories” is actually a process of pulling together these details to essentially reconstruct a version of reality.

“When you are asked to remember a certain experience that you had today in which you’re talking with person A, listening to the person’s voice, but you also are in a certain context, B, which is the context of a certain room in a certain building,” says Damasio, as an example. “You are going to have the separate recordings of the voice of the person, the sight of the person, the place—but those recordings are going to be reactivated only if another recording of the simultaneity of the event has been made in a convergence/divergence zone.”

More, including video, here.

The Ancient Dream

Vivian Gornick in the Boston Review:

3 At the time of their nuptials, Lev Nikolayevich [Tolstoy], by then a recognized writer, was a 34-year-old count who had lived a good fifteen years with the contradictions of character familiar to all readers of literature: on the one hand, he was a gambler, a drinker, a whoremaster; on the other, a breast-beating penitent who preached love, poverty, and humility, but made his family miserable, lived in luxury, and couldn’t get enough of his own growing fame. For the mass of Russians he would become a saint; for church and state, a devil; for Maxim Gorki, a figure of genius and disgust whose humility was “hypocritical and his desire to suffer… offensive!” In his early 30s, Tolstoy already wanted desperately to be saved from himself.

Sophia Andreyevna Behrs was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Andrey Behrs, a court doctor, and Lyubov Alexandrovna Behrs, a childhood classmate of Tolstoy’s. As full of intelligent high spirits as the Natasha of War and Peace, Sophia read, dreamed, larked about, loved music passionately, and fantasized conquering the world through marriage to a Great Man. Sonya (as she was known) could, in fact, have grown into a woman of sensibility and character had she ever had some real work to do. As it was, all she ever did have was the inherent sturm-und-drang of being married to Lev Nikolayevich. This would become not only her subject, but her organizing principle, her all-encompassing reality: the circumstance that nourished a richly talented arrest.

More here.

Some antidepressants alter peoples’ moral judgement

From PhysOrg:

Test The new research, by scientists at the University of Cambridge's Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, discovered that healthy volunteers given drugs which increase their serotonin, (SSRI), have an increased aversion to harming others, viewing such actions as morally forbidden.

Ms Molly Crockett of the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (a Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust funded initiative) is the lead author of the paper. She said: “Our study suggests that these medications can affect people's sense of right and wrong, which influences the choices they make in everyday life. “Interestingly, the drug's effects were strongest in people who were naturally high in empathy, suggesting that serotonin could enhance people's concern for others by making the prospect of harming them feel worse.” , which include SSRIs like the one used in the study, are among the most widely prescribed drugs worldwide. In the United States and the UK, an estimated ten per cent of the population take antidepressants for a range of psychiatric and medical conditions.

More here.

Mysteries That Howl and Hunt

From The New York Times:

Coy With a chorus of howls and yips wild enough to fill a vast night sky, the coyote has ignited the imagination of one culture after another. In many American Indian mythologies, it is celebrated as the Trickster, a figure by turns godlike, idiotic and astoundingly sexually perverse. In the Navajo tradition the coyote is revered as God’s dog. When European colonists encountered the species, they were of two minds, heralding it as an icon of the expansive West and vilifying it as the ultimate varmint, the bloodthirsty bane of sheep and cattle ranchers. Mark Twain was so struck when he first saw that “long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolfskin stretched over it” that he called it “a living, breathing allegory of Want.” And Twain’s description itself was so vivid, it inspired the animator Chuck Jones to create that perennial failure known to cartoon-loving children everywhere, Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner-hating fame.

Yet as familiar as the coyote seems, these animals remain remarkably poorly understood. They have remained elusive despite fantastic ecological success that has been described as “a story of unparalleled range expansion,” as they have moved over the last century from the constrictions of their prairie haunts to colonize every habitat from wild to urban, from coast to coast. And they have retained their mystery even as interest has intensified with increasing coyote-human interactions — including incidents of coyotes dragging off small dogs and cats, and even (extremely rarely) attacks on people, from Los Angeles to the northern suburbs of New York City, where four children were attacked in separate incidents this summer.

More here.

defending rockwell


Critics would likely seize upon the sight to observe that popular approval does not equal artistic quality, especially when the art in question is insufficiently socially aware. Certainly that’s the view of Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik, who in reviewing the show derided Rockwell as the cowardly, “aw, shucks” epitome of Middle America. Rockwell “doesn’t challenge any of us, or himself, to think new thoughts or try new acts or look with fresh eyes,” wrote Gopnik. “From the docile realism of his style to the received ideas of his subjects, Rockwell reliably keeps us right in the middle of our comfort zone.” This perception of the artist’s work as soothing sentiment for the masses is nothing new, but “Telling Stories” proves it simplistic. The show, drawn from the collections of fellow storytellers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, confirms that Rockwell had a deep understanding of America’s character and a masterly ability to convey it to canvas. True, his vision focused on our virtues, not our sins. But only in the self-loathing landscape of contemporary intellectual thought would that be cause for criticism.

more from Ryan L. Cole at City Journal here.



When it comes to flavor, I am drawn to the Old World. I like liquor with hard-to-define tastes: the bitter complexity of Italian amari, the ancient herbs of Chartreuse, the primal maltiness of Dutch genever. And I’m also drawn to the wilder, untamed parts of the New World: the agave bite of real tequila; the earthy, rustic edge to Brazilian cachaca; the strange, dry conundrum of Peruvian pisco. I don’t know why. I guess it’s the same reason I like stinky cheeses, funky wines, wild game and yeasty beers. I’m of a similar mind to A.J. Liebling, who wrote in his classic food memoir, “Between Meals”: “I like tastes that know their own minds.” Whatever it is, this impulse, this search for flavor is in response to the relatively bland tastes that defined my upbringing. There is much more going on in the glass when we sit down to drink a particularly profound spirit: a smoky 1928 rum from Fidel Castro’s cellar; a cognac that was bottled before the 19th-century phylloxera plague destroyed acres of Europe’s vineyards; one of the only vintage Calvados to have survived the German occupation of Normandy. And it’s about more than just being rare and obscure for the sake of being rare and obscure.

more from Jason Wilson at the Washington Post here.

alterman on the hitch


HAS THERE ever been anyone quite like Christopher Hitchens? As a writer and a thinker, Hitchens may be the greatest performance artist the profession has ever produced. He is Oscar Wilde without the plays; Gore Vidal without the novels; Edmund Wilson without the ideas; George Orwell without the integrity; and Richard Burton without the movies (and Elizabeth Taylor). What he is not, however, is the author of lasting works of reportage, criticism, philosophy, or, dare I say it, literature. Despite his myriad (and on occasion, damn-near miraculous) talents as literary critic, columnist, and long-form journalist, Hitchens’s genius undoubtedly lies in the art of the argument. “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them,” he has explained, adding, “I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point.”

more from Eric Alterman at Dissent here.

On “Miscellany”

by Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel_Bilgrami_5 The notion of a miscellany fetches no particular interest, except in the light of its contrasting ideal of integrity. I don’t mean integrity in the moral sense–a person’s action keeping faith with her principles– but in the stricter sense of things being of a piece, being integrated rather than miscellaneous.

The intellectual pleasures offered by literature tend to be inherently miscellaneous, while science and philosophy are marked by a drive towards integrity, towards eliminating the element of miscellany. For someone given to both literature and philosophy, as I have been from an early age, each of these contrasting satisfactions can provide a sort of relief and release from the other.

It is often asked: what is the difference between imaginative literature and other sorts of intellectual endeavor? Are there any kinds of knowledge uniquely available, say, from novels and poems? Why do we read them when we could read books in psychology, sociology, moral philosophyespecially if these are illustrated with vivid examples of ethical, psychological, and social experience? There are many possible answers to such a question, and I want to explore only one of them, the one that has to do with the contrast between the miscellaneous and the integrated.

But first I need to address a larger theme –the special forms of knowledge that can accompany emotions. More often than any other form of intellectual enterprise, the writing of a poem or novel is expressive rather than ratiocinative; and the notion of expression places special significance on the states of mind we call emotions. We tend to say: we ‘express’ emotions, while we ‘present’ our thoughts. We could say that we ‘express our thoughts’ when we speak them, but that use of the word ‘express’ is innocuous. It might just as easily be replaced by the verb ‘present.’ But if we try to make the same substitution when we talk of ‘expressing our emotions,’ a crucial remainder is left out. That remainder is what gives a special character to literature. We can present and represent and study the emotions in our psychological and philosophical and other treatises, but we don’t, at least not without bending genres, express them there. It is not merely that the language is more literary when emotions are expressed rather than presented –a different set of expectations is created in the reader because a different set of pleasures is offered.

This is not the tired duality between rational thought and irrational emotions. As T. S. Eliot saw, that dualism is disastrous for literature. For one thing, expression should not be assumed to require spontaneity, as the multiple revisions that lie under the surface of serious literature demonstrate. More important, in expressing one’s emotions, indeed in possessing them, one is in fact often given a way of perceiving what one thinks and what one’s intellectual and moral commitments are. But it is a very special way of perceiving them.

Read more »

Opposition to the “Mosque”: An Atheist Perspective

by Robert B. Talisse and Scott F. Aikin

Talisse&Aikin1 We, the authors, are atheists. Some will no doubt hold that since atheists abhor religion in all its forms, consistency demands that they oppose the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” (which in fact is neither a mosque nor at ground zero). The thought is that atheists must oppose the building of any new building devoted to religious observance. But this view about what atheists must believe is false. Abhorrence of religion does not entail abhorrence of the freedom to practice religion. Atheists indeed affirm freedom of conscience, even though they oppose the views to which many are led by their consciences.

We atheists are particularly well placed to speak to public matters concerning religious tolerance. As we have no religion of our own, atheists are especially well practiced at tolerating religion. More importantly, atheists are also keenly attuned to the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience for a democratic society. And the controversy over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque is a clash over these very principles. Our view is that those who oppose the Mosque have abandoned fundamental principles at the core of the form of constitutional democracy originated by the United States.

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Of Ants and Men (part 3)

A Paris Review-style interview with E.O. Wilson

(Read Part I and Part II.)

A score of books. Two Pulitzers. Papers that defined entire fields. So why did biologist Edward O. Wilson bother writing a novel? Because people need stories, he says. Wilson hopes his fictional debut from earlier this year, Anthill—about a young man from the South, militant ants, and the coupled fate of humans and nature—will help spark a conservation revolution.

3700817259_0b53938c69_o Wilson met me at his Harvard office—a three-roomed cavern at the university’s natural history museum. “Harvard treats emeritus professors very well,” he observed. He showed me part of the world’s largest collection of ant papers, and a copy of his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. He wore a blue/black checked shirt and slouched when he sat. His sentences were criss-crossed with asides and qualifications, and he squeezed in a few startlingly good impressions. Throughout our talk he sipped iced tea—or as Wilson, a native Alabaman, might say, sweet tea. When he spilled some on the table, he swept it onto the floor with his hand. “The difference between a book review and an interview,” he mused right before we started, “is like the difference between a handshake and a shot in the back.”

Sam Kean: Do you think your career or your scientific work have been different if you’d done a novel very early on as opposed to a later stage?

EW: That’s an unanswerable question because it would never have occurred to me to write a novel early on. I never would have had any ambition like that. All my hopes, all my dreams were to be a scientist. I didn’t even get into popular nonfiction until—I think the earliest date you could put on it would be 1978. That would be On Human Nature. That’s the first time I ever wrote a book for a popular audience, a broad audience.

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India Now and Then

A Review by Ahmad Saidullah

ScreenHunter_03 Sep. 27 09.23 Sudipta Kaviraj. The Imaginary Institution of India: Politics and Ideas. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 299 pp. $29.50.

I. Approaching India

Written in the 1980s and 90s, Sudipta Kaviraj’s eight essays on the intellectual history of politics and culture in India, with their heavy overlay of theory, are not meant for the casual reader.

He covers various topics: the specific nature of Indian democracy; aspects of Jawaharlal Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's regimes; political culture in independent India; the construction of colonial power; the relationship between state, society, and discourse; the structure of nationalist discourse; language and identity formation in Indian contexts; the links between development and democracy; and the interactions among religion, politics, and modernity in South Asia.

In investigating the specificities of Indian history, Kaviraj who is Professor of Indian Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia presents himself as an outsider, a social theorist wary of rushing in where “historians, the most well-informed group about colonial societies” fear to tread.

Kaviraj has been associated with marxist and subaltern approaches to studying India's social and political life. These views have challenged the historical presentation of European colonialism as the great story of the triumph of western reason, science, and modernity. This narrative of modernity influenced Indian nationalists, the writing of nationalist histories, and the developments of the postcolony itself. “The external character of modernity is inscribed on every move, every object, every proposal, every legislative act, each line of causality including the externality of the historical project,” Kaviraj notes.

Like his colleague Partha Chatterjee at Columbia, Kaviraj prefaces his essays by acknowledging the limitations of these counter-approaches. Some forms of marxist thought reduce the history of rationalism to an economistic account of extractive capitalism. Others, in their attempts to draw a picture of society, seek to bring forward “an alternative epistemology of the subaltern classes…a hard task under any circumstance but particularly difficult for intellectuals drawn from the middle class.”

He examines Indian politics through western political philosophy and the perspectives of Indian history and indigenous political thought. Kaviraj is interested in India as a cultural entity with a diverse history and culture. His work is shaped by a belief in the plasticity of Indian politics in reflecting and shaping the world in which people live. He is keen on investigating whether the concepts used by historians of all stripes are adequate for understanding the culture and politics of India.

As colonialism ruptures the self–relations of a society through time, he sets out to find fundamental histories of epistemological concepts embedded in social practices that can enable scholars of Indian society to draw legitimate interconnections between the “world, nation and self.”

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How Philosophy Killed My Children and Why it Should Kill Yours, Too

Parentage is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children.

– George Bernard Shaw, Everybody’s Political What’s What?


Philosophy, its oldest practitioners proclaimed, begins in wonder. Yet the wonder often directed at it appears with a furrowed brow and a patronising frown, a finger tapping against a chin. What is it good for, how will impact on my life? This question seems to dog the pursuits of philosophers sometimes above their colleagues in other disciplines: my physicists friends are rarely asked how ‘their’ black holes could affect the average citizen (aside from destroying you before annihilating you?); my film and art friends rarely focus on the use of film or theatre in a world filled with suffering (perhaps highlighting a powerful portrayal of that suffering so we actually do something about it?). And so we could go on. No doubt there are also some single sentences to counter the claim made at philosophers, but others have done this before; I wish to show something immediate for me. The reader wanting an answer need only search for them from those who are professionals, perhaps starting with Bertrand Russell’s famous final chapter, ‘The Value of Philosophy’, in The Problems of Philosophy (a very boring work aside from its clarity and this final defence), and the first chapters of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (two mostly opposed books on the subject of moral philosophy).

As I said, instead of answering the question directly, I wish to provide a personal demonstration: Philosophy has thoroughly annihilated my children – or rather, stopped me harbouring any thoughts of creating children. It has ceased any joy, wonder, amazement from being created in little human beings with my eyes, hair or smile; it has severed any form of biological paternal ‘duty’. Philosophy grabbed hold of procreation stemming from me and thoroughly buried it beneath reasonable argument. I present to you one of many tombstones of axiomatic acceptance in my life.

How did philosophy do this?

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Lunar Refractions: An Abecedarium

When life lacks character, you have to actively seek it out. For me, it usually returns in the form of characters themselves—letters, scrawlings, and texts of all sorts. This past summer I co-organized a brief, intense trip through northeastern Italy to look at a broad variety of lettering with a group called Legacy of Letters. I'm preparing a lengthier article on the experience, but with 3,000+ images and a lot of notes to sort through, it's taking its own time. Meanwhile, for those who've asked, those who know of the tour, and others who love letters, here's a small sampling of what we saw.


These snippets—robbed of their proper scale and context—can only convey so much. But alongside their morphology, the stories that accompany them speak volumes. In addition to examples by anonymous letterers, we saw work by Giambattista Bodoni, Francesco Griffo (whose Y is above), Aldus Manutius, Giovanni Mardersteig, Bob Noorda (D), Aldo Novarese, Carlo Scarpa, Bartolomeo Sanvito, and several others—including the contemporary calligrapher Luca Barcellona (K). Until the next installment, thanks for looking, and I'll return with more next month.

Previous Lunar Refractions can be read here.