'5 Intriguing Things' to Know Each Day

drum pants

Alexis Madrigal is senior editor at The Atlantic, contributor to the almighty Fresh Air, and a journalist for many fancy news organizations. He has been called "the perfect modern reporter," and most recently, has become a contributor to that small fraction of your daily email pile that is actually worthwhile. His lists of 5 Intriguing Things are delivered as an email subscription, succinctly excerpting five salient bits of information from the Interwebs for your skimming pleasure. Art, tech, current events, inventions, futurism and history are mashed up into a digestible dose of what he calls "tidbits from the past and future."

A recent edition of 5 Intriguing Things introduced several mind-blowing stories: A new invention called Drum Pants; the history behind a photo of a massive Arctic explorer and his fashionable wife; a quote from a soon-to-be-unemployed typist in India; crowdfunding for cryogenics; and new information about pharmaceutical companies' manipulative ways. It was because of this particular five that I was compelled to contact Oakland's Madrigal and ask him to reveal his secrets for aggregating golden nuggets of fascination on the daily.

Madrigal says he started the service as "a way to connect with readers that did not pass through social media." He processes information all day long from "a good mix of sources: big media, small media, individual blogs, primary historical documents, random company webpages, artist portfolios, YouTube videos, design, fiction," and emails himself the best bits. "Basically, one teeny piece of my brain is always scanning what I'm looking at for its intriguing-ness," he says.

An Intriguing Thing (or 2): Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen and his third wife, fashion illustrator, Dagmar Cohn (later Dagmar Freuchen-Gale)
An Intriguing Thing (or 2): Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen and his third wife, fashion illustrator, Dagmar Cohn (later Dagmar Freuchen-Gale)

"What I call intriguing relates to, I think, knowledge that's adjacent to what I already know, but twisted," Madrigal explains. "That could be because it is from the past or the future. Perhaps it defamiliarizes the familiar, or makes the strange seem normal. I want the links to be like funhouse mirrors for things that you've thought about. I think this is the only way to prepare for the weirdness of the future. Because the unexpected will happen."

There's a secret structure to the way things are numbered in Madrigal's mini publication. "A number one is usually newsy. Then, two has to play off of one in an interesting way. Three tends to be a longer passage, perhaps an essay or something more 'thinky.' Four is usually an archive piece or something old. (Oh, and I tend to like something visual in slots 2 or 4.) Five is a wildcard. It could be anything. And even though 5 Intriguing Things is not a joke, I like to think of it as a punchline (e.g. CIA drones, super-habitable planets, cringe-inducing augmented reality, death TV, and tropical pigeons)."

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At the end of each transmission is a funny caption that comes to him naturally. "I'm often trying to just take a snippet of language that already appeared and make you see it fresh by separating it out and capitalizing all the letters. In that (and only in that) it's like a miniature poem, just one clause to make you actually read the words." Madrigal is fascinated by language and the bonus sixth intriguing thing in each letter is an excerpt from Margaret Nicholson's 1957 guide to English language usage. "Any reading of the work, day after day, would lead one to the conclusion that there is no point at which language can or should be stopped from evolving. In fact, it is our grand project as English speakers," he says, and shared some anecdotes about his love of ever-changing language rules. "I love how people talk, strange and slangy. I love when people make up words. An old friend's father was Persian and used to just drop random the syllable 'anj' onto the ends of words when he liked how it sounded. You always knew what he meant, but the rhythm and feel changed: candelanj, afaranj, timeanj. I love when rappers play with the language and bend it into shapes you didn't think were possible. I'm for a mongrel language, a people's language, a perpetually created and destroyed language."

It is this perfect recipe -- a love of language and evolution, and a keen eye for intrigue and thoughtful packaging -- that makes 5 Intriguing Things a recommended (free!) subscription. How else would you find out that a French tween accidentally invented artificial vanilla plant pollination in France? Without that kid, maybe macarons would have never existed. And without 5 Intriguing Things, you will be a little less knowledgeable about the world, our future, and substantive fun (or frightening) facts.

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