The best type of non-fiction books are those that read like fiction. Zeke Faux’s Number Go Up is one of them.
There are a slew of books about cryptocurrency already published — scathing critiques from skeptics, fawning love letters from the orange-pilled, colorless financial treatises from economists, plus a number of investigative tomes diving into the most famous crypto hacks and scams.
But unlike every other crypto book that I’ve had to read for work (and that’s quite a few), Faux’s book stands out by the simple fact that I just couldn’t put it down.
As a fellow crypto skeptic myself, I want to emphasize that it is not just that Faux’s skepticism about crypto drew me in — I’ve read plenty of works by crypto skeptics that left me unimpressed. And despite this iconic line from the introduction — “From the beginning, I thought that crypto was pretty dumb. And it turned out to be even dumber than I imagined” — he does mainly refrain from making sweeping statements about the absurdity of crypto, letting the facts speak for themselves.
Instead, the draw of this particular book is that Faux has managed to write a fascinating 200+ pages about cryptocurrency without making the story about the technology itself. This is what happens when an investigative journalist with a passion for uncovering scams takes a look at the crypto markets. There’s no agenda here — Faux isn’t trying to convince you to go out and petition your local congressman to ban crypto after reading. Instead, he’s embedded with the weirdest weirdos in crypto, allowing their stories to shine a bright light on the inner workings of Tether, FTX, Axie Infinity and other seemingly “too big to fail” crypto companies right before most of them failed.
Faux takes cryptocurrency’s actual, real-life “use cases” (he doesn’t call them that, but I can co-opt this crypto slang ironically here) and shows them in excruciating detail. He turns the numbers going up and down on your computer screen into the suffering of the Filipinos who lost everything when the price of Smooth Love Potion crashed, and the beaten, bruised face of an escaped slave from a Tether-dependent Cambodian criminal empire.
“Crypto bros routinely claimed that anonymous, untraceable payments on the blockchain would somehow help the world’s poor. But it seemed like none of them had bothered to look into what their technology was actually being used for. Tricking Filipinos into going into debt for a pipe dream based on Smooth Love Potions was bad enough. But aiding and abetting enslavement?”
The bridge from Tether to FTX
Despite a front cover featuring Sam Bankman-Fried’s face on a coin, Faux clearly began this book as an exposé on Tether. The stablecoin defied his expectations however and, two years after starting his research, Tether remains robust.
After realizing the crypto community’s indifference to Tether’s allegedly dubious background, Faux pivoted his approach. While he didn’t get the chance to confront a single Tether executive with his uncovered evidence of the Cambodian slave compounds running on Tether, he was able to glean a reaction from Sam Bankman-Fried: “‘That’s fucked,” [SBF] said. “I just don’t fundamentally know what to do about it.’”
Putting that evidence in front of SBF instead of anyone from Tether wasn’t as random as it sounds — the former FTX CEO had allegedly asked secretive Tether exec Giancarlo Devasini for a multi-billion dollar bailout, plus, FTX was how some of the Tether scammers cashed out their eventual profits.
Meanwhile, interviewees in other segments offered many candid insights, reflecting the polarized opinions in the crypto realm.
The creator of a certain formerly popular crypto exercise app described how its users “Ponzied” each other. One of SBF’s biggest supporters claimed, “I firmly believe once somebody becomes a certain level of rich, they’re never poor again.” And at a party for the Degenerate Trash Pandas NFT collection, Faux recounts asking one of the guests whether crypto would ever be useful to regular people, to which the partygoer responded:
“Why is it that you think that is important?”
The real beauty of this book is in the little details. It’s what makes it read like fiction, even though it’s all unfortunately horrifyingly real. As Faux attends a party looking for Brock Pierce (former Mighty Ducks child star as well as former Tether co-founder), he writes:
“In the kitchen, an older guy with a leathery tan sneakily filled up his water bottle from a handle of whiskey. Someone complained that their shoes had been stolen. A doctor from Boise, Idaho, and a Bitcoiner were talking about the coronavirus vaccine and ‘medical freedom.’
Six young women with long straightened hair wearing short skirts or sequined dresses arrived in a group. One of them sat at the piano and played a song. ‘Look at the rack on her,’ a guest said to me, not quietly enough. He then walked over and told her she sounded like a dying bird.”
Or when Faux writes about his time at ApeFest meeting Jimmy Fallon, right after the height of the Bored Ape Yacht Club celebrity craze. He notes that Fallon looked “tan and smooth, almost waxen” when the celebrity television host told him in a bored tone that he only bought his ape “for the community.”
Following the red flags
The best way to describe Number Go Up is a leave-no-trace crypto examination. Faux first enters the world of crypto with the intention of uncovering scams — not because he believes that crypto is inherently a scam, but because he wants to follow the red flags for financial crimes perpetrated using crypto that any normal investigative reporter would see. And then, when his explorations are over, he leaves the crypto space just as he left it: He bought and sold his Mutant Ape, none of the Tether executives he thought would be brought down by the crypto crash were jailed, and the crypto crash wasn’t even the end of crypto as we know it.
But even though you could not say that Number Go Up is in any way a positive story about crypto, it’s also clearly not your typical crypto skeptic’s manifesto, listing the reasons why crypto is a Ponzi scheme, crypto mining is killing the environment, Bitcoin is “rat poison squared” and worse than harvesting babies’ brains, etc. etc.
And that’s probably because the author is not your typical crypto skeptic. He is an investigative journalist who is good at finding scams and writing about them, as he admits in the introduction, and that’s what he set out to do — find the scams in crypto and write a good book about them.
And he certainly found them.
I don’t care much about tech, I don’t care a whole lot about finance, either. I care about writing stories and watching weird things unfold. And that’s why I’ve ended up in crypto.
But because I’m missing that passion for what crypto and blockchain are all about — finance, tech, privacy, yadda yadda — I’m going to write instead about what I am actually interested in. Everything about crypto that has very little to do with crypto.
That’s what this column will be about. All the tangential stories that come out of the blockchain and crypto space, what I think about them, and how I navigate it all as a skeptical former Russian literature major.
It’s precisely my perch as an outsider that lets me do what I do: Opine on all sides of any crypto issue, no strings attached, no skin in the game.
If you want to talk crypto with me, let’s go off topic.