Derren Brown uses his mind-tricks to make himself invisible to a film student.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on February 18, 2009
Derren Brown uses his mind-tricks to make himself invisible to a film student.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 7, 2008
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If you’re a well-informed, health-conscious New Yorker who has put on some unwanted pounds in the past year, it might not be entirely your fault. Here’s a possible alibi: The health halo made you do it.
I offer this alibi after an experiment on New Yorkers that I conducted with Pierre Chandon, a Frenchman who has been studying what researchers call the American obesity paradox. Why, as Americans have paid more and more attention to eating healthily, have we kept getting fatter and fatter?
Dr. Chandon’s answer, derived from laboratory experiments as well as field work at Subway and McDonald’s restaurants, is that Americans have been seduced into overeating by the so-called health halo associated with certain foods and restaurants. His research made me wonder if New Yorkers were particularly vulnerable to this problem, and I asked him to help me investigate.
Our collaboration began in a nutritionally correct neighborhood, Brooklyn’s Park Slope, whose celebrated food co-op has a mission statement to sell “organic, minimally processed and healthful foods.” I hit the streets with two questionnaires designed by Dr. Chandon, a professor of marketing at the Insead business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Alexander Chernev, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. Half of the 40 people surveyed were shown pictures of a meal consisting of an Applebee’s Oriental Chicken Salad and a 20-ounce cup of regular Pepsi. . . . On average, they estimated that the meal contained 1,011 calories, which was a little high. The meal actually contained 934 calories — 714 from the salad and 220 from the drink.
The other half of the Park Slopers were shown the same salad and drink plus two Fortt’s crackers prominently labeled “Trans Fat Free.” The crackers added 100 calories to the meal, bringing it to 1,034 calories, but their presence skewed people’s estimates in the opposite direction. The average estimate for the whole meal was only 835 calories — 199 calories less than the actual calorie count, and 176 calories less than the average estimate by the other group for the same meal without crackers.
Just as Dr. Chandon had predicted, the trans-fat-free label on the crackers seemed to imbue them with a health halo that magically subtracted calories from the rest of the meal.
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To read the entire article, which includes further discussion of this experiment and also summarizes some additional, related research, click here. For additional related work by John Tierney, visit the TierneyLab.
For other Situationist posts on the situation of eating and obesity, click here. The American obesity paradox is explored at some length by Situationist Contributors, Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosifon, who devoted a sizeable article to the mistaken but dominant dispositionist attributions made regarding obesity and the actual situational sources of the epidemic. To access their article, entitled “Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America,” click here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 11, 2008
Emily Dupraz wrote a nice summary (for the front page of the Harvard Law website) of Situationist contributor Jon Hanson’s recent lecture at Harvard Law School. Here are some excerpts (as well as a link to the webcast of the lecture).
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Individual free choice, an idea that permeates common sense and legal theory, assumes that actions reflect the stable preferences of individual actors. Individuals are responsible for their actions (that is, their preference-driven choices), and laws can therefore be designed on that assumption.
But if that assumption is wrong, says Harvard Law School Professor Jon Hanson, then laws built upon it may not be advancing the ends they purport to serve. And Hanson’s view, steeped in interdisciplinary study in the mind sciences, is that the assumption of indvidual free choice is faulty. The decisions people make, he says, are often determined by influential factors in the situation—that is, non-salient and often invisible external and internal factors that influence, not only how we behave, but also how we make sense of our behavior.
This is what Hanson calls “situationism.” Using social psychology and related mind sciences to help understand law and legal theory, he suggests that people, ideologies, and laws are shaped by forces quite different from those they imagine. While varying versions of the individual-choice model have served as the basis for most laws, policies, and mainstream legal theories, Hanson says, social psychology, social cognition, cognitive neuroscience, and related social scientific fields have uncovered many ways in which that model is detrimentally incorrect.
Hanson explored some of those ideas in an October 29th lecture at HLS entitled, “The Human Animal, Ideology, the Law, and other Situational Characters.” The lecture commemorated his appointment as the Alfred Smart Professor of Law. (Watch the webcast). The chair was endowed by the Smart Family Foundation, in honor of Alfred Smart, a 20th-century publishing entrepreneur who helped launch Esquire magazine and other publications.
Among those in the audience was Hanson’s colleague, Professor Alan Stone, a psychiatrist and interdisciplinary expert in law and the mind sciences and a renowned film critic. When Stone retires from the HLS faculty, the Smart chair will become the Alan Stone Professorship. Alfred Smart was Stone’s father-in-law.
In his lecture, Hanson incorporated several movie clips to help illustrate his arguments and to recognize Alan Stone’s love of cinema. Referring to a famous dream sequence from Federico Fellini’s “8 ½,” Hanson said: “Our ideology is like a car—it’s an instrument or tool that enables us to get around and gives us the feeling that we’re in control, in the driver’s seat of our lives. [But] we are far more situationally constrained than we ever imagined. Consequently, we’re unable to get where we want to go . . . . In my view, a necessary condition for making better laws is first understanding who we are, what moves us, and what purposes and subconscious motives our ideologies are actually serving.”
Hanson said that the mind sciences behind “situationism” have complex implications for the legal system, and that the law-making process must do a better job of taking into account how individuals make decisions.
Hanson joined the HLS faculty in 1992 after receiving a law degree from Yale. Hanson is is an expert in tort and corporate law with a background in law and economics. He is co-director and creator of the Project on Law and Mind Sciences at HLS and contributes regularly to a blog that discusses the legal implications of human decision-making – The Situationist. Hanson received the 1999 Sacks-Freund Award for excellence in teaching and was a finalist in both 2000 and 2006.
In her introduction of Hanson, Dean Elena Kagan ’86 said: “His deep appreciation and concern for the students of this law school knows no real bounds. He is teacher, mentor, and friend to so many students – possibly to more than any other faculty member at this law school.”
In honor of Alan Stone’s interdisciplinary expertise, the chaired professorship is to be given to someone who has “distinction in scholarship related to the intersection of legal studies and one of the following: psychiatry, psychology, medicine, and literary and film studies.”
Stone is currently the Touroff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry, a joint appointment held with HLS and the Harvard Medical School. Kagan hailed him as “one of the earliest and one of the best interdisciplinary scholars at Harvard,” having forged his interdisciplinary paths among law and psychiatry and law and film studies for almost four decades.
In addition to his work exploring the intersection of law and psychiatry, Stone is a movie critic for the Boston Review, and he recently published a book entitled, “Movies and the Moral Adventure of Life.”
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 6, 2008
The following op-ed was co-authored by Situationist contribtor Jon Hanson and a Situationist fellow. “In crisis, beware illusion of reform” was published in the Providence Journal.
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IN CASE you missed it, global financial markets have been rocked by a series of unsettling events. The collapse of Lehman Brothers and the $700 billion government bailout package are only the latest in a string of shocks — a string that, if investors’ worst fears are realized, represents the beginning of a much more dramatic unraveling of the global financial fabric.
Seven years ago, American markets were in similar turmoil. Such companies as Enron were using “aggressive accounting,” “special-purpose entities” and other balance-sheet tricks to hide risks and represent themselves as healthier than they were.
The accounting scandals of the early 2000s and the reform that followed have much to teach us about our approach to the current crisis. Then, as now, the problem stemmed from convoluted financial instruments that few people could disentangle. Then, as now, corporate behemoths that had seemed invincible came crumbling down (Enron was the biggest bankruptcy in history until WorldCom, which was the biggest bankruptcy in history until Lehman Brothers).
Then, as now, virtually everyone agreed that a big part of the solution was to be found in some sort of additional regulation. Today, Barack Obama calls for “regulatory reform,” while John McCain (a long-term proponent of deregulation) has called for “comprehensive regulations that will apply the rules and enforce them to the full.”
It was that sort of regulatory impulse that, in Enron’s aftermath, gave us the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”), which President Bush called the most far-reaching overhaul of America’s business practices since the Great Depression.
Sure sounded promising. The latest bailouts and scandals will no doubt lead to similar reforms, some of which are already in the works. An important question, then, is what those reforms should be — a topic that will occupy many scholars, policymakers and commentators in the upcoming months.
Unfortunately, there is a good chance that those reforms will not have much long-term effect. The real risk is that we get the illusion of reform, not meaningful, substantive and lasting reform. Calls for change come loudly when a crisis rears its head. Inevitably, however, the fervor fades, as workaday duties, dentist appointments, American Idol and the pennant races distract the public and, in turn, policymakers.
While the rest of us turn to other matters, the regulated entities themselves will maintain a steady focus on one question: existing regulations and how to weaken them.
In the aftermath of Enron and WorldCom, corporations, to maintain their legitimacy, initially expressed outrage and wholeheartedly supported new regulations. Members of the Business Roundtable were “appalled, angered and, finally, alarmed” about the problem. President Bush was right, in their view, to berate the bad-apple business executives and to call for more rigorous regulatory standards for all. “We must and will be at the forefront of supporting these reforms,” the Roundtable concluded.
Riding the wave of that consensus, lawmakers took a series of steps, patted themselves on the back, and moved onto other matters, and we all assumed the problem was solved. With that, what had been implicit resistance turned to explicit pressure from the business community to minimize and undo the “reform.”
Consequently, the post-Enron reforms never lived up to the post-Enron rhetoric, and the regulatory teeth that Sarbanes-Oxley initially flashed have been blunted by pro-business revisions. Some provisions never made it into SOX, such as a requirement that lawyers report to the Securities and Exchange Commission if a company’s board failed to respond to warnings about misconduct.
Other provisions exist only on paper, such as Section 404’s “assessment of internal controls,” the compliance date for which has been repeatedly delayed (for nonaccelerated filers) and now stands at Dec. 15, 2009. The Committee on Capital Markets Regulation, with the blessing of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and in the name of “U.S. competitiveness,” has promoted several reforms that make it harder for companies to be sued and more difficult for the SEC and others to regulate.
The committee’s members include heavy hitters from the world of business and finance, including Thomas A. Russo, the vice chairman and chief legal officer of Lehman Brothers.
If history is any guide, the same sort of dynamic will unfold this time around. The reforms that we see will be largely procedural, not substantive — check this, sign that, certify here, jump a hoop there — and they will not fundamentally change the situation that produced this crisis. The reform will look sweeping, because it will be broad-based and ballyhooed as “tough.” Soon enough, the business elite will complain that, indeed, it is too tough. We will learn that small-business owners and entrepreneurs, not to mention Fortune 500 firms, are being tangled and tripped up in overregulation and needless compliance costs.
The mantra of “markets good, regulation bad” and the primacy of shareholders will return. Erstwhile concerns about third parties — such as the taxpayers who are bailing out companies — will gradually be eclipsed by claims that those very groups are the most harmed by the new regime. After all, these burdensome regulations go too far and “hurt American competitiveness,” “drive business, jobs and tax revenues overseas,” “increase costs for consumers,” and so forth.
Such is the “law of unintended consequences,” which apparently applies to only regulations and regulators, never markets.
The reform, which might look promising initially, will be rolled back, whittled away and watered down (corporate lobbyists are already positioning themselves to grab a piece of the $700 billion bailout).
That’s the thing about illusions: What appears to exist doesn’t. To address the financial crisis, regulatory reform is certainly needed. But no less important will be mechanisms for girding those regulations against the influence of the regulated. Beware the illusion of reform.
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For a related Situationist post, see “The Situation of Illusion.”
Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 25, 2008
Tamara Piety has posted her excellent article, “‘Merchants of Discontent’: An Exploration of the Psychology of Advertising, Addiction and the Implications for Commercial Speech” (25 Seattle University Law Review 377 (2001) on SSRN. Here’s the abstract.
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The commercial speech doctrine allows the government to regulate commercial speech so as to prevent advertising that is false or deceptive while forbidding suppression of truthful commercial information that is based on nothing more than misplaced paternalism. However, this limitation is largely illusory in the realm of traditional advertising because the processes by which advertisers convey their messages employs means such as pictures, symbols, and music, making it virtually impossible to try to test such advertising for its truth. Objections to commercial advertising or calls for stricter regulation often invoke the response that there is no harm in advertising and any regulation of it would be an imposition of elitist sensibilities, or furthermore, a slippery slope to totalitarianism. But we should not treat commercial advertising as largely harmless, argues Prof. Piety. Commercial advertising is a pervasive force which blankets our society and plays a noticeable hand in promoting harmful behavior or attitudes. Given its pervasiveness in the culture it is disturbing to note many parallels between the psychology of commercial appeals and that of addiction. Both appear to involve retreat to fantasy, escapism, a quick fix to problems, a numbing down or increased tolerance from overexposure, and the institution of a vicious cycle wherein consumption fails to really satisfy but sets up a dynamic into which satisfaction rests just out of reach with the next fix or the next purchase. Prof. Piety examines three areas in particular where values of equality or definitions of autonomy clash with First Amendment protection for advertising such as this: the advertising of addictive substances, advertising directed at children, and advertising that undermines goals respecting equality for women and suggest that the doctrine may need to be revisited in light of these issues.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 25, 2008
In which direction does the dancer in the image appear to be spinning? The answer: It depends on your situation.
From Neurologica Blog:
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These kinds of optical illusions . . . reveal . . . how our brain processes visual information in order to create a visual model of the world. The visual system evolved to make certain assumptions that are almost always right (like, if something is smaller is it likely farther away). But these assumptions can be exploited to created a false visual construction, or an optical illusion.
The spinning girl is a form of the more general spinning silhouette illusion. The image is not objectively “spinning” in one direction or the other. It is a two-dimensional image that is simply shifting back and forth. But our brains did not evolve to interpret two-dimensional representations of the world but the actual three-dimensional world. So our visual processing assumes we are looking at a 3-D image and is uses clues to interpret it as such. Or, without adequate clues it may just arbitrarily decide a best fit – spinning clockwise or counterclockwise. And once this fit is chosen, the illusion is complete – we see a 3-D spinning image.
By looking around the image, focusing on the shadow or some other part, you may force your visual system to reconstruct the image and it may choose the opposite direction, and suddenly the image will spin in the opposite direction.
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For a collection of other Situationist posts providing and discussing illusions, click here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 21, 2008
Monday’s Boston Globe had a nice article, titled “Environmental cues affect how much you eat,” by Judy Foreman on the Situation of Eating. We’ve included the introduction below.
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Next time you sit down to dinner, dim the lights – but not too much. Both bright light and dim light may make you eat more. Watch the background music, too. If it’s too fast, you’ll eat fast, and therefore more; too slow and you’ll keep eating. And think small for plates – a portion that looks skimpy on a dinner plate looks ample on a salad plate.
The more that researchers study obesity, the more they are finding that portion control is key to successful weight loss. Often, people think they’re eating much less than really are. And these perceptions can be influenced, often outside our conscious awareness, by environmental cues, including lights and music.
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“The big danger . . . is that we all think we are too smart to be influenced by environmental cues. . . . The good news is that it is very easy to reverse these cues and to just as mindlessly eat less.”
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To access the entire article, including tips on what might be done to influence the situation that is otherwise influencing us, click here.
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Below is six-minute interview of Brian Wansink in which he discusses several situational factors influencing what we eat and how much we enjoy it.
For a a more complete description and analysis of the situation of eating, see the law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America by Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion.
In case you missed Morgan’s Spurlock’ 2004 Academy-Award-Nominated documentary, Supersize Me, which explores some of the situational sources of obesity, you can watch the 100-minute movie below.
For those interested, here is a list of related Situationist posts to date: “The Situation of Eating,” “The Situation of the Dreaded ‘Freshman 15’,” “Our Situation Is What We Eat,” “Social Networks,” “Common Cause: Combating the Epidemics of Obesity and Evil,” “The Situation of Fatness = Our ‘Obesogenic’ Society,” “Innovative Policy: Zoning for Health,” “Situational Obesity, or, Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat and Veg,” “McDonalds tastes better than McDonalds, if it’s packaged right,” “The Science of Addiction, The Myth of Choice,” “The Situation of our Food – Part I,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part II,” “The Situation of Our Food – Part III,” and “The Situation of our Food – Part IV.”
Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book, Choice Myth, Food and Drug Law, Illusions, Life, Video | Tagged: Brian Wansink, Broken Scales, Mindless Eating, Obesity, Situation of Eating, Supersize Me | 1 Comment »
Posted by J on June 25, 2008
In a paper that Ronald Chen and I wrote a few years ago (part of our “Illusion of Law” series), we summarized a few of the ways that “magic” happens and the key role played by “the way people think.” Here’s an excerpt from that paper (note: we are quoting Nathaniel Schiffman’s book, Abracadabra! Secret Methods Magicians & Others Use To Deceive Their Audience (1997)).
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Explanations that are outside of our schemas – what we believe or what we want to believe about the things we see – will rarely be activated. It is often the case that we simply cannot fathom that the magician might be doing what he is doing:
. . . when Blackstone did his famous birdcage vanish (a cage with a live bird vanished from his bare hands) he would hold his arms outright in front of him, seemingly presenting the cage to the audience for their inspection. . . . The cage was specially designed to collapse on command. At the appropriate time, Blackstone would toss it forward, and the collapsed cage would be pulled up his sleeve – bird and all. Savvy adults watching the show might shake their heads and say, ‘Nah, it couldn’t go up his sleeve because he wouldn’t want to injure the bird.’. . .
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Actually, in many cases the bird was injured or killed.
Convinced that the magician would never rely on a method that might harm the bird, audience members were unable to see the trick. Their “knowledge” that the magician was not the type to harm a bird simply for the purposes a magic trick blinded them to what was the most obvious explanation for the illusion.
Our inability to see the magician as a particular type of person –- capable of, and willing to do, the unexpected in order to achieve magic –- is, like magic, no coincidence. Relying on our schemas, we make assumptions about the magician and her willingness to follow what we might consider to be the “unwritten rules” of magic. Audiences at a magic show
expect the magician to perform his magic in front of them, in full view, while misdirecting away from those certain actions that constitute the trick-to-the-trick. The audience probably doesn’t realize they are making those assumptions, because they have no reason to believe their assumptions are being broken. But very often a magic trick works because the magician has broken the unwritten rules of theatrical performing.
For psychics or “mentalists,” the unwritten rules include the following: first, the assumption “that the man on stage alone is performing the magic”; second, “that all the magic is done in ‘real time’ as the performance is happening”; and, third, “that the magic is done on stage.” The mentalist’s trick is often in breaking those rules – for example, having assistants eavesdrop on conversations in the audience; collecting juicy morsels of information prior to the time the show begins (and sometimes days before); relaying surreptitiously gathered information from off-stage. Doing unglamorous, tedious detective work prior to the show is often exactly the way that the trick is done.
In the end, magic succeeds when the audience believes what the magician wants them to believe: the idea that “[their] act is so awe-inspiring and mystical and magical that how in the world could that amazing magic be due to such lowly subterfuges as microphones and assistants transmitting information?”
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The July issue of Harper‘s includes a remarkable article by Alex Stone, “The Magic Olympics.” Stone’s first-hand account of The World Championships of Magic is stunning, but I want to focus on just a few of his paragraphs that describe a particular illusion (similar to an illusion that we published in a post two weeks ago and re-publish in this post) and that further illustrates the message in the passage above.
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[W]e’re entertained . . . by a . . . hair-raisng sawed-in-half effect. I’v seen hundreds of bisections, but nothing like this. Dressed as a doctor, he chainsaws his patient in half, and then an attractive nurse wheels the torso around on an ersatz gurney, waving her arms hrough the void where his legs ought to be. No box. No curtains. No mirrors. Nothing. What the hell?
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Take a look at the brief Youtube video below.
Social psychology and related fields have demonstrated repeatedly that what we are prepared to see strongly constrains what we can and do see. Those constraints on our thinking leave us vulnerable to manipulation and victims of many illusions in including, as the following excerpt from Stone’s article suggests, the illusion of an illusion
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I board a small plane back to the States. Several of the artists and competitors are on the flight, all looking as haggard as I do, and feel. After a week of biblical astonishments, I feel hardened. Nothing can faze me. But as I file through business class, I see something for which I am wholly unprepared. In the first row sits the illustionist of last night’s sawed-in-half routine, a meaty, florid man with triangular eyebrows and thin red lips. His trick has been gnawing at me since I saw it. No boxes. No mirrors. How? Now suddenly, I understand. Sitting next to him, in th aisle seat, is a slender dark-skinned man who looks normal in all respects save one: his body terminates just below the waist. No legs. No hips. Nothing. I can’t help but stare, and for a moment I wonder if anyone can hear my mind snap.
Magicians will go to great lengths in pursuit of the ultimate illusion, concealing silk inside a thumb tip, or doves in a coat, or any number of small objects within the delicate folds of a well-hemmed topit. But concealing an entire man–or rather, half a man–and flying him across the glove in service of a five-minute routine is something else entirely, something far stranger, something brilliant, yes, but also sad. Did the half-man, kept hidden in a hotel room, see nothing of Stockholm? What sort of non-disclosure agreement had he signed? Can I, too, buy a half-man at my local magic store?
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Assuming that Stone’s revelation helps to explain the same trick that is captured in the video above (and it may not), how does your reaction compare to Stone’s? Please comment.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 22, 2008
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Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 18, 2008
Arthur Shapiro has posted another of his remarkable illusions this week on his outstanding blog, Illusion Sciences.
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This illusion has special significance to us because, it is a “situationist illusion.” As Professor Shapiro explains:
One of my favorite places on the web is The Situationist, a blog that explores how the “situation” (or context) affects interpretation. The site has numerous examples of how objects, people, and events in one context are interpreted differently from the same objects, people, and events placed in another context.
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The visual display above presents an example of the effects of the visual “situation.” In one situation (vertical orientation for the disks), the viewer interprets the disks with reference to the background context (i.e., the two curtains). One disk looks like a shadow on the curtain, and the other looks like a spotlight. The disks are therefore interpreted as a dark spot and a lighter spot on the curtains. In another situation (horizontal orientation), the viewer is able to separate the disks from the context of the curtains and therefore will identify the disks as having the same shading.
To learn why the disks look different or similar to one another depending on whether they are oriented vertically or horizontally, or to look at more of Professor Shapiro’s award-winning illusions, click here.
Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 16, 2008
Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 14, 2008