🌊 TikTok on the Clock

Plus: Man in Iron Lung dies

Yay, more royal family drama!

The Princess of Wales Kate Middleton has disappeared from the public eye, and something doesn’t smell right. The latest fishy detail came this week when the Palace released a clearly photoshopped picture of Kate with her kids on the UK’s Mother’s Day. The public is no longer buying the Palace’s “she’s away due to abdominal surgery” narrative. Instead, conspiracy theories abound: Is William having an affair? Is Kate in a coma? Is she leaving the family? Did she lose a 12-leg college football parlay in December and still not recover? Time for Kensington Palace to give us the tea!

In today's edition:

🇬🇧 Britain bans puberty blockers

🚓 Justice catches up with the Bling Bishop

🇷🇸 The conclusion to Roca Reports Serbia

And so much more!

–Max, Max, Jen, and Alex


House Passes TikTok Bill

The US House voted 352-65 to advance a bill that requires ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a US ban

  • The bill faces an uncertain path in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has not yet said whether he will bring it to a vote. Several senators, including the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have backed it; others have expressed skepticism, with some saying it may violate the First Amendment

  • TikTok and its investors – including a top Republican donor who owns a $15B stake in ByteDance – are expected to wage a fierce lobbying campaign to prevent the bill’s passage

Dig Deeper

  • TikTok has claimed that a TikTok ban would harm millions of US businesses and users and may violate the First Amendment

  • It has twice released mass notifications calling on US users to contact their representatives to complain about the bill

  • President Biden supports the bill; former President Trump formerly opposed it, but has since taken a more neutral stance on it


Puberty Blocker Ban

The UK’s National Health Service banned puberty blockers for children

  • Doctors prescribe puberty blockers – drugs that stop puberty onset – to children considering transitioning. Up to 98% of children who take them do ultimately transition. Medical bodies often say their effects are reversible, but studies suggest their impact on bone density, fertility, and more can be permanent

  • That’s led some government’s to ban their use in children. On Tuesday, the UK’s became the latest to do so after an independent report found they may negatively impact physical and cognitive development

Dig Deeper

  • The UK’s public health system has instead recommended providing children with a more “holistic approach to care” that includes consultations with pediatricians and mental health experts

  • The UK’s Conservative-led government called the ban a “landmark decision” in the “best interests of the child”; critics accused the government of harming trans children


Man in Iron Lung Dies

Paul Alexander, a polio survivor who lived in an iron lung for most of his life, died on Tuesday at age 78

  • Alexander contracted polio when he was six years old. The disease paralyzed him from the neck down and forced him to be placed in an iron lung – a cylindrical tube that forces the lungs to breathe

  • Over time, Alexander regained the ability to breathe outside the lung for short periods of time. That enabled him to return home, graduate high school, and ultimately receive a law degree

  • He continued to use the lung until his death, making him one of the only Americans to still do so. Last year, Guinness World Records declared him the longest surviving iron lung patient in the world

Dig Deeper

  • In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, Alexander said that he was the only disabled person in his college classes. “Wherever I went, I was the only one. Restaurant, movie theater – I thought: ‘Wow, there’s nobody else out here. I’ll just pave the way’”

  • The cause of his death is unclear, although he was admitted to a hospital last month due to Covid


Musicians Exit SXSW Over Army

Dozens of artists and panelists have dropped out of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas, over its sponsorship deal with the US Army

  • SXSW is an annual music and film festival. One of its leading sponsors is the Army

  • Dozens of artists and panelists have dropped out since last week in protest of the Army’s ties to Israel. Artists to drop out include Brooklyn-based artist Okay Shalom, indie band Lambrini Girls, and English pop singer Rachel Chinouriri

  • In response, Texas’ governor wrote on X, “Bye. Don’t come back”

Dig Deeper

  • Separately, the festival dropped a panel featuring RFK Jr. over participants’ objection to giving him – whom they called a conspiracist – a platform. He was scheduled to speak on third-party politics

  • A political analyst and 9/11 first responder slated to be the panel’s moderator wrote on X that he “will not elevate or support RFK Jr.,” citing the politician’s “promotion of 9/11 conspiracies”

  • That was an reference to a podcast appearance last year in which RFK questioned the official account of 9/11


Bye, Bye, LMNT Chai

The good news is that daylight is longer each day and the temperatures are warming up. The bad news is that we have to say goodbye to LMNT’s tasty Chocolate flavor

Some Quick Stories for the Office

👮🏽 Uvalde Police Chief Daniel Rodriguez announced his resignation on Tuesday, days after a City Council report cleared city police of wrongdoing in connection to the 2022 Uvalde shooting

🇷🇼 The UK plans to offer £3,000 to rejected asylum seekers for their voluntary relocation to Rwanda. That is separate from last year’s contested plan for forced deportations, which a UK court blocked

🇬🇧  To prevent a foreign takeover of the conservative-leaning Telegraph, the UK government proposed a law restricting foreign state influence in news media mergers

🔨 Lithuania blamed Russia for a hammer attack on a longtime aide to Alexei Navalny in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius

💰 Per Savings.com, nearly 50% of US parents financially support their adult children. Gen Zers get an average of $1,515 monthly from parents, while Millennials and Gen Xers receive ~$907 and $960, respectively


Weekly Debate

Most news companies repress ideas they don’t agree with. We are different. To prove it, we’re making this a place where people can have a free and open debate. Each week we lay out a debate on Monday and feature responses below, replies to those the following day, and so on.

This week’s Roca Votes Wrap asked: What’s a bigger threat to democracy: The new book “White Rural Rage” – which argues that white rural Americans pose the greatest threat to American democracy – or white rural rage?

I am from southwestern mountains of Virginia. I see no one raging. As far as confederate flags they are few and far between. I see a people wanting to be able to keep their way of life.

David from Virginia

This book is accurate and says what everyone else is afraid to say. Rural, white America is the greatest threat to the united country that we should be. Take example one: Immigrants make this country’s farming industry work, yet middle America screams for closing the border???? Thank you to the authors for forming a cohesive argument around this.

Susan from LA

This is a perfect example of “the costal/urban elitism” referenced by some other readers. Not only does Susan imply that immigrants are just a cheap labor force for agriculture, but she does not even try to address any arguments against immigration. Shouting down at people saying they are a problem for having a differing opinion just causes resentment (white rural rage) to fester

Jack from Madison Wisconsin replies to Susan

Jack’s criticism of Susan “from LA”’s comment is astute. No reasonable, average, rural American is against immigration altogether. They’re against illegal immigration. Closed borders are found in the most liberal countries throughout the world, including socialist and communist republics. Wanting a protected country doesn’t mean allowing no one in, it means screening people through a legal process before letting them in

Alex from Texas replies to Susan and Jack

Reply to this email with any additional thoughts!

Some Quick Stories for Happy Hour

🏍 Baby, he was born to run: A Florida motorcyclist led deputies on a 145 MPH chase through highway traffic with an imitation license plate that read “WILL RUN”

🥓 Bacon brings home the tapeworms: Doctors found tapeworms in a Florida man’s brain, which they believe may be linked to his “lifelong preference for [undercooked] bacon

🛸 Monolith mystery: Walkers discovered a mysterious silver monolith standing ~10 feet tall on a Welsh hilltop over the weekend. They initially thought it might be a UFO, sparking online theories

👑 Blessed are the lambos: A flashy Brooklyn pastor known as the “Bling Bishop” was found guilty of five counts, including wire fraud, attempted extortion, and making false statements to the FBI

🏝 Dune Doom: A Massachusetts beach town spent $600,000 to truck in 15,000 tons of sand to create protective dunes, but a storm washed away half of the sand four days later

✈️ Student becomes the teacher: A 19-year-old student pilot flying as a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight allegedly tried to rush the cockpit multiple times, claiming he was “testing” the crew

The China Connection

In 2021, US authorities sentenced drug lord Xizhi Li to 15 years in prison.

Li wasn’t just any criminal: He was a visionary who revolutionized money laundering.

Born in southern China in 1973, Li’s family moved to a Mexican city near the US-Mexico border when he was 10. Six years later, they moved to Southern California.

Li became a member of the 14K triad, a Chinese organized crime group, and in 2005 opened a Los Angeles-area restaurant frequented by smugglers and traffickers.

In 2008 – when Li was going by “Juan Lee,” among numerous other aliases – he agreed to purchase $200,000 worth of cocaine from an undercover federal agent. Police arrested a courier and others in Li’s network, though, tipping Li off to the operation. Li fled across the border – and began building a drug empire that spanned three continents.

Over the following years, Li established a lucrative network smuggling drugs and people across Latin America while selling passports for as much as $15,000 each. Those crimes fueled his personal wealth, allowing him to buy property across Latin America and, eventually, a casino in Guatemala City.

In 2011, Li agreed to arrange a fake passport for a well-connected Chinese expat, Tao Liu.

Li and Liu struck up a close friendship, and the latter introduced Li to his acquaintances, including wealthy Chinese businessmen. Li’s casino became a hub for the criminal underworld, attracting a mix of businessmen, Chinese criminals, and Latin American cartel members. Amid that, Li hatched an idea: To create a money laundering network spanning three continents.

Around that time, Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched a widely-publicized “anti-corruption” campaign.

Officially intended to root out government waste and corruption, Xi used the campaign to crack down on political opposition and expand his power over the economy.

To control the money of the ultra-rich, China’s government limited annual transfers of Chinese currency out of the country to $50,000. That made Chinese businessmen start looking for illegal ways to get their money out of China.

Meanwhile, Mexican cartels had their own problem: What to do with all the cash they generated from selling drugs in the US.

The cartels sought to convert those US dollars into Mexican pesos, but they couldn’t do so through legal financial institutions. Some cartels attempted to simply drive the cash through the border, while others laundered it through US-based intermediaries. But both processes were slow, expensive, and high-risk.

Li spied an opportunity to make money – and the drug trade hasn’t been the same since.

This is Part 1 of a 2-part series. Part 2 will be in tomorrow’s newsletter!

Reply to this email to let us know what you think!

Roca in Serbia

We send our co-founder Max Frost to investigate topics around the world and he writes about them here. He’s currently writing from Serbia. Subscribers receive the full stories.

Serbs, Bosnians, Albanians – the different groups of the Balkans have many problems with each other. Yet a few things remain constant wherever you go. 

The first is smoking: These countries exist in clouds of smoke. Whether you’re in a café, bar, restaurant – when you walk outside, you reek of smoke. At night, when you shower, you smell the smoke lifting off of you. If you don’t wash your clothes before you wear them again, someone back home will say to you, “Were you smoking?”

Second is cevapi – the Balkan kebab. Made of meat and salt and possessing a somewhat baking soda-esque taste, it’s served with flatbread and onions. Cevapi typically come in small, long ovals and orders of 5, 7, 10, or 15. They’re served everywhere in the Balkans, although the meat recipes differ: Bosnians and Albanians (Muslims) don’t eat pork and make their kebabs mainly out of beef. Serbs (Christians) make theirs out of lamb, pork, or beef. Everywhere, they’re greasy.

Third is burek, a layered, flaky pastry stuffed with meat, cheese, spinach, or other fillings. Served fresh, it’s hot, greasy, falling apart, and delicious. It’s a dish that’s hard to miss if traveling in those countries. 

And fourth is rakija – a term for fruit-based brandy that is popular across the Balkans. The fruit that is fermented depends on the specific area. It’s often plum but can also be grape, apricot, cherry, or something else. Excluding some devout Muslims, it’s a staple across the Balkan people.

A final tradition is the kafana. 

The kafana started as a type of coffee house in the Ottoman Empire. Over time, it evolved into an establishment where people could get small plates and coffee. As cities industrialized in the 1800s, they became centers of entertainment, where people would eat, drink, and hear live music. Much of the kafana clientele were villagers who had come to work in factories. As such, their entertainment was the folk music of the countryside. 

The kafana thus became a Balkan institution, where people would drink, eat, and listen to folk music. They remain popular today, although more as an homage to traditional folk culture than the real deal.

The kafana brings the full Balkan experience together, as I found out when I visited one on my last night in Serbia. It was a Sunday afternoon and I entered into a cloud of smoke. Immediately upon sitting down, the waiter approached: Rakija shots? Cevap? Burek?

Despite it being Sunday afternoon, the place was packed and rowdy. Some 40 people were spread out along two long tables that stretched the length of the restaurant. My waiter said everyone belonged to the same family and was celebrating a child’s first birthday. Their tables were littered with carafes of rakia, plates of cevapi, and beers. 

The band played their guitars and accordions at a deafening volume while the guests – all in suits and dresses – sang along to every word, put their arms around each other, and cheersed over and over again. They danced with their babies, lifted them up and down, kissed each other on the foreheads and cheeks. 

Seeing this – on my last night in Serbia – drove home what surprised me most about the country. I had imagined Serbia to be the dark, gray stereotype of post-communist eastern Europe. It is those things, in part. But it’s also a place where people have an openness, warmth, and joy for living that I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. Serbia was not what I expected.  

Reply to this email to let us know what you think!

💰 Treasure Hunt

Welcome to the weekly Roca treasure hunt! The rules are simple:

  • Every day we give a hint. You get one guess, which you submit by emailing [email protected] with a Google street view screenshot

  • Unlock an extra hint each Thursday once you refer five friends

  • The first person to guess the answer wins this week’s prize: A free year of Roca premium!

Clue 1: It takes two hands

Clue 2: A quarter for the first

Clue 3: Not a question - it’s family

Cue 4: Orange and white stripes overhead

Know the answer? Send the Google street view screenshot to [email protected].

Final Thoughts

Thank you for all the positive feedback on Roca Reports in Serbia. We love hearing your feedback, so please keep the emails coming.

And up next… is Kosovo!

Enjoy your day!

— Max, Max, Alex and Jen