LilaTovCocktail: Ingredients: one part NE Ohio; two parts politics; two parts media, and one part each: culture, family & the Jewish community. Directions: Shake well.

Morphing and change: 44 US Presidents - George Washington to Barack Obama


I find this video -- 44 US Presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama morphed to the music Boléro by Ravel -- absolutely mesmerizing.

Morphing is, in essence, movement. Paced to the hypnotic beat of Ravel's Bolero, this is a graceful (and thought provoking) example of what is still a relatively new form of of kinetic art. (There's a subsequent version of the same visuals set to Nirvana's Rape Me. Not as successful.)

At first look, the fluid morphing draws attention to features of our presidents' visages hitherto unnoticed (at least by me), (You'll find yourself thinking things like, "My god, his nose was HUGE" and "Well, HE could never have been elected in the age of television").

The video's final message -- "Change can happen" -- refers, of course, to the skin color of our newest president. But oddly enough, I found that the overall trajectory of the video led me to notice the similarities among these faces rather than differences.

For me, the visual differences between the faces of George W. Bush and Barack Obama are far less startling than the differences between, say, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Was there a morph that caught your eye that way?

It's a reminder that human beings tend to oversimplify identity. Yes, skin color is of signal importance in determining racial/cultural identity in America (as Obama's book makes clear). But it's certainly not the only or even the primary visual marker we could focus on.

Speaking genealogically, there are good reasons that Obama might look more like his 43 predecessors than you might expect. Obama and Bush are 11th cousins, sharing common ancestors Samuel Hinckley and Sarah Soole Hinckley of 17th century Massachusetts.

Obama's distant cousins also include Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman, James Madison, Winston Churchill and Robert E. Lee. Scarily enough, Obama and Dick Cheney are 8th cousins, related through Mareen Duvall, a 17th century immigrant from France.

In terms of the visualization of information, morphing has tends to de-emphasize visual difference. If, on the other hand, you want an image that emphasizes Obama's differences from his predecessors, here it is:

P.S. Want to try your hand at morphing? Try the online tool Morphthing.

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