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Review: ‘Number Go Up’ is a funny if shallow look at the worst people in crypto

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Review: ‘Number Go Up’ is a funny if shallow look at the worst people in crypto

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Books about crypto tend to fall into one of two categories: rah-rah accounts of how blockchain can better humanity or sneering takedowns that pronounce the whole thing a scam. After a recent bubble marked by staggering swindles and the arrest of leading crypto figures, you can guess which genre is hitting the shelves right now.

The newest offering is Number Go Up: Inside Crypto’s Wild Rise and Staggering Fall by Bloomberg journalist Zeke Faux. Released today by Penguin Random House, the book features crypto Ponzi-schemer extraordinaire Sam Bankman-Fried on the cover and takes the reader on a sometimes laugh-out-loud tour of the crypto industry’s most despicable practices and people. And god, there is no shortage of those.

From sleazy yacht parties hosted by former child actor Brock Pierce, who calls himself a “doula for creation,” to the crypto bros who portray vapid materialism and windfall riches as a form of community, Faux puts a spotlight on the loathsome people who helped define the latest blockchain bubble. Here he is on the grifter Razzlekhan, who performed godawful rap lyrics while being an accomplice to the theft of billions of dollars in Bitcoin:

“As a performer, Razzlekhan was both hypersexual and aggressively unappealing. She alternated jokes about diarrhea and sex with boasts about her edgy business practices. Her signature move…was to throw up her hand with her fingers split into a “V,” stick out her tongue, and say, “Razzle Dazzle.” Then she would make a loud phlegmy cough.”

Number Go Up is primarily a tour into the most famous scams and excesses of the industry but also uses the wildcat stablecoin Tether as a narrative thread. Building on his award-winning article into the murky origins of Tether—an unregulated crypto version of the U.S. dollar—Faux describes a global journey in which he seeks to uncover what, if anything, is backing the currency and to expose the executives behind it, including the co-creator of the cartoon Inspector Gadget and a megalomaniac plastic surgeon whose former clinic offered “scrotum lifts.”

The true state of Tether’s finances have long been a source of concern to the crypto industry and to regulators since the stablecoin possesses a market cap—around $81 billion—larger than most banks’ and which would have considerable knock-on effects should it collapse. In the book, Faux repeatedly implies that the reserve of dollars that’s supposed to back Tether’s stablecoin doesn’t actually exist but never proves it. While the red flags he cites are numerous and alarming—including Tether’s refusal to open its books or perform an audit—the reality is that, even after crypto’s recent implosion, the market—for now—continues to have faith in the cryptocurrency.

Number Goes Up takes a serious turn in a chapter called “Pig Butchering” that begins with a light-hearted account of Faux receiving texts from “Vicky Ho,” an attractive and fictitious young woman who asks him to send cryptocurrency. The butchering term refers to a Chinese term for romance scams that involve slowly establishing the trust of a mark before finally extorting them.

On discovering that Vicky’s scam involves sending Tether, Faux embarks on a tour of Vietnam and Cambodia where Chinese gangsters run large pig-butchering operations that can involve enslaving young transplants, and ordering them to meet a quota or face torture or death. The account, which includes testimony from victims and a visit to the “Chinatown” compound, where criminals spend money earned from human suffering on big meals and prostitutes, is often heartbreaking and shows how cryptocurrency has made such operations easier.

While the two chapters on pig-butchering make for a compelling read, they also belie the biggest flaw in the book, which is intellectual laziness. Faux treats Tether as his white whale and suggests it is somehow to blame for all of the misery experienced by victims of romance scams and those coerced into perpetrating them. While Tether may have made pig butchering easier, and the moral indifference of its founders is appalling, it’s absurd to think it’s the underlying cause of scam economies in South Asia. Laying full responsibility for various crimes at the feet of Tether is like waging a campaign against $100 bills, or blaming Apple and Amazon for drug trafficking because Mexican cartels use their gift cards as a form of currency.

Faux also employs this type of reductionism while breezily dismissing the entirety of crypto as a massive scam. This is not just lazy but wrong since it ignores that, alongside the Razzlekhans and Bankman-Fried’s, crypto has given rise to a massive new industry based around blockchain technology that’s being used by everyone from corner bodegas to JPMorgan. Whether critics want to acknowledge it or not, crypto is primarily a new technology and class of investment, and with that comes scams. At times, Faux’s facile dismissals sound like the one-time screeds over dot.com stocks, or feel akin to writing off the current AI boom because it’s attracting hustlers.

On a few occasions, Number Go Up does situate crypto grifting within a larger historical context, including his account of the “Big Store” scam in the Old West that saw conmen open fake stock-buying venues populated by accomplices acting as brokers and customers. The book would have benefited from more such parallels and at least a nod to more measured overviews of crypto, including his Bloomberg colleague Matt Levine’s superb account that took up the entirety of a BusinessWeek issue. Instead, the book goes all in on pandering to those who have made up their minds already that crypto has no appeal for anyone who’s not a criminal or a fool.

Fortunately, Faux’s lively pen make it easier to overlook analytical shortcomings and simply enjoy the book’s many rollicking tales. This includes the many cringe-worthy moments that arise after the author decides to join the obnoxious band of NFT flaunters called the Bored Ape Yacht Club. In the best spirit of investigative journalism, Faux persuades his wife to let him risk $20,000 of the family’s finances on buying his own Ape. After naming it Dr. Scum, and endowing the ape with invented detective powers that come with smoking weed, Faux then attends a party of other Bored Ape owners. I won’t go on, but the account makes for some of the funniest pages you’ll read this year.

The book also benefits from Faux’s skill with financial documents and his access to some of the most prominent figures in crypto, including Bankman-Fried. While the disgraced FTX founder, who goes on trial next month, is not a central figure in the book (wait for that in Michael Lewis’ new work due out next month), Number Goes Up includes a wealth of new details about the scammer’s final hours before he was arrested. Reading the account of Bankman-Fried whining and wheedling as his scheme comes undone, as his lieutenants turn on him, offers new layers about the most notorious financial criminal of this decade.

Overall, Number Go Up is not a serious history of crypto and its emerging role in the financial system, but it is an often-hilarious court-side view of the recent mania—and a useful reminder to blockchain evangelists about the many, many sleazy characters who inhabit their realm. Well worth a read.

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