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Many periods of irrational exuberance are accompanied by great architectural works that appear, in hindsight, to define the unbridled optimism and arrogance of the era in which they were created. The Empire State Building was a product of the years preceeding the Great Depression, while the Petronas Towers opened its doors during the 1997 economic collapse in Malaysia.

The Burj Dubai, which officially opens tomorrow, is the greatest monument from our most recent period of economic madness. At approximately 820 metres, it overshadows its nearest rival, Taipei 101, by over 300 metres. It has 162 floors and is visible from a distance of almost 100 km away. It cost USD 4 billion to construct, took 5 years to build and had over 7,500 people working on it at one stage.

And now, it’s finished. How long will it take to become economically viable? The Empire State Building took 20 years to do so.

The media is reporting that a woman has been discovered in Cambodia who has lived in the wild since the age of eight. She is unable to speak any language and has had no normal human contact for 19 years.

I find the subject of feral children both fascinating and discomfiting. Feral children (children that have been brought up in the wild) have been documented for many centuries and have inspired many of the great works of children’s literature, from the Jungle Book to Tarzan.

These children have been the subject of much scientific research since the eighteenth century because these cases seemed to posess a key insight to deep questions about humanity. What are humans like when civilisation and socialisation are removed? What is our natural state? Are we influenced by nature or by nurture? What aspects of us are innate and what are acquired traits? Are we naturally good, or naturally bad? Can we change who we are? Is religion instinctive? How close are we really to our animal neighbours? In what specific ways are we different?

In the case of feral children, many of these questions remain unanswered. The feral state, for a human child, is an unnatural one. Many of the children were damaged by their experience and needed significant care for the rest of their lives. In fact, cases of modern day child-neglect (such as the Genie case) are not dissimilar. The cases seem to emphasise strongly that we humans need others and probably have always done so. Studying a lone child in the woods eating roots and berries tells us very little, apart perhaps how great our ability to survive is and what effect isolation can have on the development of a young mind.

A few years ago, I wrote up some of the more celebrated stories here, and a very compresensive account of all the stories can be seen at this site.

Update 2006/01/24 : Reportedly, the girl has tried to speak, but the words are not intelligible.

This story, concerning the fate of the senior editor of the CNET portal in the US is very tragic and very moving. What that young family went through in that last week in the Oregon forests is unthinkable.

“They stayed in the car all day Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, amid rain and snow, occasionally starting the car for warmth. On Wednesday, they used magazines and wet driftwood to build a fire. The wood was hard to get because it was frozen, Hastings said, so they tried to thaw it and keep it dry by putting it under the car. On Thursday, the Kims burned the spare tire, and on Friday burned the remainder of their tires for heat and to signal for help”

My thoughts go out to his family.

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