Should We Fear Fear Itself?

People are worried about the Euro. As bad news flows out of Europe – persistent unemployment, popular discontent over painful austerity measures, and catastrophic bank losses tied to still-deflating real estate markets – international investors continue to cast doubt over the Euro-Zone’s short- and long-term stability. Fear of at least a partial disintegration of the monetary union is rampant. Indeed, Morgan Stanley recently released the results of a survey of 150 of its clients; while only 3 percent of the investors thought there is more than a 60 percent chance that the Euro-zone will break up, three-quarters of the respondents thought there was some probability of a breakup. These statistics raise a double concern. First is the fear that this nightmare scenario will come to pass, an unprecedented event that could fatally wound investor confidence in the Euro, potentially eliminating its viability as a secure store of value. Second, one might fear this fear itself, as these investors’ worries might contribute to their own realization.

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Financiers justify the distinctive double movement of the last several decades by arguing that markets are efficient. Neither the proliferation of capital markets nor the wearing away of regulations on them would be legitimate cause for concern if markets could be counted on to allocate capital to the areas of the economy that deserve it. Yet this period’s continual booms, busts, and crises provide a substantial and ever-increasing body of evidence that these supposedly rational capital markets are, in fact, anything but. As much as Florida’s decaying, uninhabited subdivisions attest to the dangers of irrational exuberance, Ireland’s swaths of unsold houses and imploding, too-big-to-fail banks attest to the power of expectations. They demonstrate that rather than allocating resources on the basis of soberly considered “economic fundamentals,” capital markets have a stubborn tendency to synthesize their own realities from the grist of investors’ expectations.

Consider how the now-familiar contagion of financial crisis replays itself in each of the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain), adding to the uncertainty about the Euro-Zone’s continued solidarity. First, the hard slap of reality deflates a convenient and officially supported untruth, swamping the government’s budget with red ink. In Greece, it was Prime Minister George A. Papandreou’s acknowledgement that his predecessor had been hiding massive government obligations in complex financial instruments, cleverly designed by the whizzes at Goldman Sachs. Ireland’s difficulties stem from the painful popping of its massive real estate bubble, which hit its banking sector with losses so big they overwhelmed the Irish state’s aggressive bailout attempts. In both cases, deficits quickly piled up and investors started to worry that the governments might default on their sovereign debts.

This is when a new and dangerous set of self-reinforcing expectations took hold of the situation. To appease investors worried about the riskiness of their debts, the Greek and Irish governments were forced to raise the yields on their bonds. Perversely, increasing the price of their sovereign debt service further strained their budgets and made defaults more likely. This, in turn, made international investors more cautious about lending to these governments, necessitating further increases in bond yields. Worse, the more concerned investors become about any one of the PIIGS, the more likely it is that the contagion will spread to the other fragile countries gorging themselves at the trough of international capital markets.

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Jijiga Nights

By Maniza NaqviRedLightNightC

On the way to Elderidge street to view Saul’s work on, well, as later we discuss at the gallery, over beer and wine and under fluorescent light: Man’s Hegemony–Anyway—On the way there, changing from the One to the D to meet Ali at 42nd street, speeding, hurtling downtown —reading poetry, MTA’s overhead, that is, and surrounded by every type of light and commotion and the train’s rattling —pounding out the question it seemed to me–What is slow and what is night? Over and over again and again the same sound. What is slow and what is night? Then, came to mind another town. There, in that quiet and hush in dark’s first blush an inkling of slow and of night when the sun goes down. Then, a single naked bulb, lit and dangling from a wire, each, in each shack teases beauty through a quivering tungsten tongue murmuring of a still and separate universe. In the near black out town, of Jijiga when the sun goes down every shack and dozens more begin to glow and seem to unwrap themselves like tiny gift boxes, in rows upon rows. And just beyond and out of reach how indeed a sensation begins to grow as the stars too, descend to take dominion over the earth. Every evening, in Jijiga’s night and slow, every shack unfolds its own magical show. Which illuminated, so, each a miniature carefully curated. Colored tarps stand in as walls in emerald, turquoise, orange, blue along the narrow Jijiga dirt roads. Day light’s hovels by night transformed as though each one a story’s page. Or each one a framed painting —Or, perhaps, each a window onto something else. Or each a separate theater set or a stage. There, look, just beyond the glow a silhouette of a warrior, in shadow, chewing chat taking a rest from the undeclared war for his oil and gas. For which the script directs that he will lose to a foe, a stronger and a most unwelcome guest, sneaking, slinking and slithering in. A year, perhaps, to photograph all this? Another two perhaps to write it all down? And then to sketch and paint it too—for display in some far away space and perhaps to win accolades? On the way to Elderidge street to view Saul’s work on, well as we discuss later at the gallery, over beer and wine and under fluorescent light: Man’s Hegemony–Anyway—On the way there, changing from the One To the D to meet Ali at 42nd street, speeding, hurtling downtown surrounded by every type of light and sound I thinking of what is slow and what is night: In Jijiga’s quiet and hushed streets a single naked bulb, lit and dangling from a wire, each, in each shack teases beauty through a quivering tungsten tongue murmuring verse of a still and separate universe.

Lions and Hyenas

No I never heard them fight,

The lions and hyenas late at night

I guess I slept too well in Jijiga.

Gathered there as we were,


With all the feigned piety involved for



Migrant workers at a high price

Exchanging astonishments for all the places in


Last promotions, last stations

Last incarnations.

You too? No! In Dushanbe?

1996 and 2004?

Kabul—2002 through six months ago?

Well of course!

And now Jijiga!

What are the odds of that?

No I never— heard them fight

The lions and Hyenas late at night

I guess I slept too well in Jijiga

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The Trouble with Models

Tribbles The economy, political events and even the sun’s course have converged to make these bleak and darkening days for many of the world’s developed nations, and certainly for America. What we need is expert and effective guidance on the impact of policies and programs. What we get is a cacophony of conflicting, often incoherent, ill-informed just-so stories backed by some combination of intuition, self-interest, resentment, herd thinking, natural and social scientific theory, and cherry-picked statistics. The modern social sciences in particular, which had as their mandate and their promise to guide us in times like these, have often become simply another part of the problem, providing dueling experts for hire with dubious track records. That is, when they are not busy generating results that are completely irrelevant to real life practical problems.

How has this happened? We can blame human nature or ideological corruption, but I think it’s time to come to terms with the fact that one of the central activities of social science is a fool’s errand, because a core assumption that underlies it is wrong. That central activity is to create mathematical models that explain social phenomena by identifying and measuring a limited set of contributing causes. This is done using statistical tests for significance, explanatory power, accuracy and reliability (the p-values, F-tests, confidence intervals, factor analyses and so on). With minor variations, this is what the “scientific” work of political science, sociology, educational theory and social psychology consists in. Doing this is what it takes to get published in major journals and achieve tenure at major universities. Even economics uses these and related statistical methods, when it stops being social metaphysics and decides to get dirty with evidence. A core assumption that underlies this work is that there are unchanging relationships between the variables that can be identified in causal models.

Despite millions of hours of effort, the inconvenient truth is that there is not a single non-controversial quantitative model in the social sciences. I don’t mean a qualitative model which reformulates a truism, or is logically derived from prior assumptions. Nor am I referring to a mere statistical snapshot with no claim to durability (though the vast numbers of these too are contested). I mean a robust causal model, with dependent and independent variables, with measured and fixed coefficients giving the relative influence of the independent variables on the result, and applicable beyond the test scenario to a wider range of cases which have been successfully applied with precision. The sort of thing that litters the natural sciences like bones on a particularly grisly battlefield, allowing experts to build hydroelectric dams, synthetic organisms and Xbox 360s by exploiting precise and unchanging mathematical relationships. If there is such a quantitative model (or, one hardly dare utter the word, “law”) in the social sciences, I have not seen it. I’m willing to bet that neither have you.

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BAPTISM BY SODA: A look at the Juggalo Phenomenon

Insane_Clown_Posse_umvd01 As legions of cool-hunters trawling the Internet and bohemian sectors of cities are well aware, given that most subcultures are spun around a kernel of hoodlum glamour and guilt-free rutting, selling youth culture is not exactly hard. Youth movements are appropriated and neutralized at such a ferocious rate, that no musical subculture since “Gangsta Rap” has been subversive enough to resist the American mainstream for long save for one: the juggalos (sic) – the off-brand soda flinging, hatchet-wielding followers of The Insane Clown Posse.

Insane Clown Posse are a band of forty-somethings who sing threatening lyrics set to menacing music, all while wearing full circus makeup. The ICP aesthetic is flabbergasting in its audacity and tastelessness – picture jarringly artificial colors appropriated from energy drinks and candy wrappers, loose prison garb and a symbology incorporating death’s heads, jesters and improvised weaponry. Their lyrics hew close to contemporary gangsta rap and other so called hard-core bands, using a lot of profanity to describe violence and sex with a certain swaggering bravado. Every now and then they’ll put out a more soulful, slow, softer ballad that often digs into the band’s philosophy.

Humble-born youth have always managed to appall their elders and betters, but juggalos are so spectacularly unappealing to mainstream tastes that in the eighteen years the band has been playing for major audiences they remain a cult phenomenon. This is despite albums that have gone platinum and gatherings that attract tens of thousands of teenage fans clutching wads of disposable cash. ICP has such a hold on its fans that juggalos have actually been buried in the bands colors. Juggalos are more a collective than anything else; they refer to themselves as “Family” and defend their lifestyles fiercely.

So why can’t the clowns cash in? Gangsta Rap was arguably more of a threat to mainstream America than the Insane Clown Posse, with lyrics as fierce and misogynistic, and an added element of racial outrage and shock. Aside from the purely aesthetic (Blender famously voted Insane Clown Posse as the worst band in any genre in 2004 and reviews in general have tended to be sharply critical) last month came a clue as to how the clowns can maintain such a hold on their fans while paradoxically repelling mainstream consumer culture.

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Gender and Philosophical Intuition

Gendlerstich Tamar Gendler and Stephen Stich, over at Philosophy TV

Empirical evidence collected by Stich and Buckwalter suggests that “standard” intuitions about philosophical thought experiments (e.g. Gettier cases) are more common among men than women. Stich and Gendler examine the merits of this evidence. They consider what might explain gendered differences in intuitions, and whether such differences can help to explain why women are underrepresented in professional philosophy. They also discuss alternative explanations for the gender gap, including the effects of sexism and the shortage of female professors and graduate students to serve as role models for female undergraduates. Finally, they ask why a gender gap has been a larger problem in philosophy than other fields.

Cables Shine Light Into Secret Diplomatic Channels

29cables-web1-articleLarge Scott Shane and Andrew Lehren in the NYT:

The cables, a huge sampling of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates, amount to a secret chronicle of the United States’ relations with the world in an age of war and terrorism. Among their revelations, to be detailed in The Times in coming days:

¶ A dangerous standoff with Pakistan over nuclear fuel: Since 2007, the United States has mounted a highly secret effort, so far unsuccessful, to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that American officials fear could be diverted for use in an illicit nuclear device. In May 2009, Ambassador Anne W. Patterson reported that Pakistan was refusing to schedule a visit by American technical experts because, as a Pakistani official said, “if the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons,’ he argued.”

¶ Gaming out an eventual collapse of North Korea: American and South Korean officials have discussed the prospects for a unified Korea, should the North’s economic troubles and political transition lead the state to implode. The South Koreans even considered commercial inducements to China, according to the American ambassador to Seoul. She told Washington in February that South Korean officials believe that the right business deals would “help salve” China’s “concerns about living with a reunified Korea” that is in a “benign alliance” with the United States.

The FBI successfully thwarts its own Terrorist plot

Glenn Greenwald in Salon:

Md_horiz The FBI is obviously quite pleased with itself over its arrest of a 19-year-old Somali-American, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, who — with months of encouragement, support and money from the FBI's own undercover agents — allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb at a crowded Christmas event in Portland, Oregon. Media accounts are almost uniformly trumpeting this event exactly as the FBI describes it. Loyalists of both parties are doing the same, with Democratic Party commentators proclaiming that this proves how great and effective Democrats are at stopping The Evil Terrorists, while right-wing polemicists point to this arrest as yet more proof that those menacing Muslims sure are violent and dangerous.

What's missing from all of these celebrations is an iota of questioning or skepticism. All of the information about this episode — all of it — comes exclusively from an FBI affidavit filed in connection with a Criminal Complaint against Mohamud. As shocking and upsetting as this may be to some, FBI claims are sometimes one-sided, unreliable and even untrue, especially when such claims — as here — are uncorroborated and unexamined. That's why we have what we call “trials” before assuming guilt or even before believing that we know what happened: because the government doesn't always tell the complete truth, because they often skew reality, because things often look much different once the accused is permitted to present his own facts and subject the government's claims to scrutiny. The FBI affidavit — as well as whatever its agents are whispering into the ears of reporters — contains only those facts the FBI chose to include, but omits the ones it chose to exclude. And even the “facts” that are included are merely assertions at this point and thus may not be facts at all.

More here.

I’m just here to measure your penises

Jesse Adelman in McSweeny's:

Rapi_scan_lg There's been quite a bit of scuttlebutt in the press and amongst the civil liberties crowd about what we—myself and my fellow full-body scanners—are coming to your airports to do. What is our real purpose? How invasive, truly, are these full-body scans? Will air travel, over time, become somehow less dignified, less “private”?

I'd like to take the opportunity of this writing to allay these and other misgivings. Please know: I'm just here to measure your penises. And I'm very, very good at it.

Can I see electronic components or liquid metals? Exotic bomb-making compounds? Timers or wires poking out of foreign orifices that mean us harm? No, no, and no, I cannot. And ladies, I have no interest in whatever arrangements you might have going on down there—no thanks! Fundamentally, I'm a specialist. I was built to measure penises for national security.

Many folks seem to have the impression that their penis scans will simply be appraised by a crew of chuckling, fantastically overweight elementary school dropouts in some musty back room near the baggage drop. While that may well be the case, you can rest assured that your penis will be regarded with the utmost professional care and clinical detachment until the very moment that a fine-grained digital image of your business leaves my fiber-optic cable en route to our vast federal crotch database.

More here.

The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved

Rob Dunn in Smithsonian Magazine:

Consequences-of-evolution-388 1. Our cells are weird chimeras
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).

2. Hiccups
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.

More here.

Margaret Atwood interview

From The Guardian:

Margaret-atwood-in-london-007 Atwood's pressing interest, as the daughter of an eminent Canadian entomologist, is our planet and its future. Nothing seems more important to her, and since this concern animates almost everything she does, her conversation segues as easily into global warming as Canadian literature: “The threat to the planet is us. It's actually not a threat to the planet – it's a threat to us.” She goes on: “The planet will be OK in its own way. No matter what we do to it, we won't eliminate every last life form from it.” As evidence of this, there's the Canadian city of Sudbury, a favourite of Atwood's. When she was growing up in the 1940s, the place was as “barren as the moon” through overlogging, forest fires and relentless mining. “All the rain was acid,” she says. It was so bad that “a Sudbury” became a unit of pollution. But then a volunteer programme of regeneration was launched. Earth and seeds were painstakingly stuffed into the cracks between the rocks. Now, “Sudbury has forests again, birds in the trees and fish in the streams.” For her, Sudbury, “a symbol of hope”, offers a paradigm for the planet. And so, Atwood continues, with rather bracing realism, “some form of life will remain after us. We shouldn't be saying 'Save the planet'; we should be saying: 'Save viable conditions in which people can live.' That's what we're dealing with here.”

Atwood likes to tell the Amoeba's Tale as an illustration of the “magic moment” at which planet earth now finds itself. There's this test tube, and it's full of amoeba food. You put one amoeba in at 12 noon. The amoeba divides in two every minute. At 12 midnight the test tube is full of amoebas – and there's no food left. Question: at what moment in time is the tube half full? Answer: one minute to midnight. That's where we are apparently. That's when all the amoebas are saying: “We are fine. There's half a tube of food left.”

More here.

The Voyager

From The New York Times:

Marshall-popup Writing in The Atlantic last year, presumably while finishing work on “The Passages of H. M.,” a novel based on the life of Herman Melville, Jay Parini declared that the historical novel “has become our primary form of fiction.” The present, he speculated, “can seem too bright, too close,” requiring “the filter of memory” to sort out and deliver the profound insights readers hope to find in novels. Going a step farther, he argued that it is in fiction like Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln” or Russell Banks’s “Cloudsplitter” that “one gets ‘real’ history.”

Parini, a poet, biographer and literary critic as well as a novelist, can write with admirable lyric intensity: “In these islands, the sun shone as if from within, the moon burned in his brain. Water became sky, and night exchanged its sultry qualities with day.” But even these passages make us hunger for Melville’s own words: “Hither, and thither, on high, glided the snow-white wings of small, unspeckled birds; these were the gentle thoughts of the feminine air; but to and fro in the deeps, far down in the bottomless blue, rushed mighty Leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks; and these were the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea.”

More here. (Note: I am posting this review mainly for the Melville quote in the last paragraph. To this day, Moby Dick remains my favorite American novel, one that finally made me appreciate the storms in the souls of men that make them go whaling. Read it again if it has been more than 5 years since you read it last.)

Sunday Poem

At a Jazz in Denver with my Son and His Friends
I Learn Something New

I sit and listen in the midst
of my son’s crowd, speak
a bouncy banter.
We kill time
with the Simpsons before
David plays jazz.
In jeans and casual jackets,
we drink Coors,
check the wind-tossed sky,
the flash of lightning, hoping
in spite of the weather, a crowd
will pour through the door.
After a while, I hear a shift
of tone, a carefulness
I hadn’t noticed before.
In a conversation of augmented fifths
and ninths, the friends address me
in safe thirds. I listen more carefully.
Where is the cutting edge,
the forward motion? We converse
in C major, squarely metered.
I sit back stunned. The lack
of dissonance strikes a new chord.
When did Youth leave me and move on?
I adjust my position on the barstool,
lean into her absence, wonder
how I never saw her go.

by Mary Jo Balistreri
from Joy in the Morning
Bellowing Ark Press, © 2008

a truth beyond accuracy


“The children must never find out about what their father has suppressed,” writes Günter Grass in The Box: Tales From the Darkroom, his new memoir in the form of a novel. “Not a word about guilt and other unwelcome deliveries.” The last time Grass wrote about his life, in the more straightforward 2007 memoir Peeling the Onion, suppression and guilt were all that readers wanted to talk about: in particular, the revelation that the teenage Grass, during the last days of the Second World War, had served in the Waffen SS, and concealed this fact for the next six decades. The story made headlines, and not just in book-review sections, because Grass has long been more than just another novelist. Ever since the publication of The Tin Drum, in 1959, he has been something like the conscience of postwar Germany—a position solidified when he won the Nobel Prize in 1999. In his new book, the 83-year-old writer is still reckoning with the past. But this time he turns his attention to a different, and even more complicated, kind of accounting: the one that every parent owes to his children. This means exploring types of guilt and penance that are just as painful, if less sensational, than anything in Peeling the Onion: “Now the inadequate father hopes the children will feel some compassion. For they cannot sweep aside his life, nor he theirs, pretending that none of it ever happened.”

more from Adam Kirsch at Slate here.



Our taste in Old Masters often tells us more about ourselves than fashions in contemporary art. El Greco was ignored until his exaggerations suddenly chimed with modernism in the 1900s. Caravaggio emerged from obscurity only when his streetwise dramas and androgynous sensibility echoed democratic, sexualised postwar culture. And now Lucas Cranach, little known beyond Germany even a few years ago, is becoming the Old Master for the early 21st century. Why? Cranach’s first UK shows took place in 2007 at the Courtauld Institute, and in 2008 at the Royal Academy – its posters advertising his slinky nudes were nearly banned from London Underground. This autumn brings further major exhibitions: Lucas Cranach, the Other Renaissance at Rome’s Galleria Borghese is the first ever display of the artist in Italy; The World of Lucas Cranach, at Brussels’ BOZAR, then travelling to Paris, is his first retrospective in France or any Benelux country.

more from Jackie Wullschlager at the FT here.



“Huckleberry Finn” turns 125 this year, which is also the 175th anniversary of Twain’s birth and the 100th of his death. It’s a perfect time to reconsider his importance, not because of these anniversaries but in spite of them. Such occasions, after all, often obscure our ability to engage with a writer; they become mausoleums built around the life and work. What does it mean to call “Huckleberry Finn” a great book, and Twain a quintessential American voice? Such praise means nothing if we can’t feel it, if we can’t get inside the language, the world view, if we can’t experience it as living literature, something that transcends its time. For this reason, Norman Mailer chose, on the occasion of “Huckleberry Finn’s” centennial, to celebrate it as if it were a new book, transformative and fresh. “The book was so up-to-date!” he wrote in the New York Times Book Review. “I was not reading a classic author so much as looking at a new work sent to me in galleys by a publisher. It was as if it had arrived with one of those rare letters which says, ‘We won’t make this claim often but do think we have an extraordinary first novel to send out.’ So it was like reading ‘From Here to Eternity’ in galleys, back in 1950, or ‘Lie Down in Darkness,’ ‘Catch-22,’ or ‘The World According to Garp.'”

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.

Saturday Poem

Enough Space

give me the Blues
give me
the Blues
all the space I need
is three chords
to tell a howling
'ya beautiful honey'
knuckles cracking at sun-up story
give me the
with deep pockets of bass rhythm that pumps
like the heart of black earth and
dreams deferred.
The Blues is
enough room to breathe is
three chords
and a bit of sunlight
through dirt- and smoke-fogged
windows, the Blues
is an attic garret in
Paris or Prague or New York
or Chicago or
a sharecropper's shack in
Bogaloosa Lousiana –
where art
without any name at all
first cries its be-wah-wah-be-wah-dah.

give me enough space
give me the Ba-looos

by Albert DeGenoa
Poetry From Blue Fred's Kitchen

When new narratives meet old brains

From NewScientist:

Storywriter “We are our narratives” has become a popular slogan. “We” refers to our selves, in the full-blooded person-constituting sense. “Narratives” refers to the stories we tell about our selves and our exploits in settings as trivial as cocktail parties and as serious as intimate discussions with loved ones. We express some in speech. Others we tell silently to ourselves, in that constant little inner voice. The full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold. State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our “selves” through narrative. Based on a half-century's research on “split-brain” patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain's left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret – that is, narrate – behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.

More here.