The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

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Bitcoiners Destroy Their iPhones After Apple Removes Wallet From App Store

Blockchain was the only Bitcoin wallet app left for iphones and ipads

3 min read
User about to destroy anti-Bitcoin iPhone

On Wednesday, Apple removed the Blockchain wallet app, the only remaining app that could be used to make Bitcoin payments on the iOS platform, from its App Store. And Bitcoiners are pissed off. How pissed off? One particular Apple customer was so angry that he blasted his iPhone to smithereens with a rifle. Luckily for us, he filmed himself doing it.

He did, however, have more to gain than a rush of sublime catharsis and 15 minutes of YouTube fame. Ryan, as he identifies himself in the video, shot up his phone in a spirit of protest, but only after a Reddit user besought enraged Bitcoiners to publicly destroy their iOS devices with the promise that he would send them new, Nexus 5 smartphones in return. The user, “round-peg,” promised one replacement phone for each 100 “upvotes” he got on the Reddit post, but limited it to six phones after a deluge of attention.

It seems that this was the last straw for many iPhone-toting Bitcoin users. The Blockchain app was only the most recent Bitcoin app to get pitched from the Apple marketplace. Last November, it shut down another app which allowed users to interface with Coinbase accounts (Coinbase functions both as a Bitcoin wallet and a Bitcoin exchange.) In December, it booted a comparable app designed by CoinJar (though it’s still available to Australian customers). And last month, Apple forced Gliph to remove Bitcoin transaction features from its secure messaging app. All of these apps are still available in the Google Play Store for use on Android phones, such as the Nexus 5 (except CoinJar, which says it’s still working on it).

Apple has not made a public statement about why it’s coming down so hard on Bitcoin. And according to the San Francisco Chronicle, company representatives declined to comment about this latest decision. But the snubbed app designers are coming up with their own theories. 

In a blog post yesterday, Blockchain went on the offensive, writing:

These actions by Apple once again demonstrate the anti-competitive and capricious nature of the App Store policies that are clearly focused on preserving Apple’s monopoly on payments rather than based on any consideration of the needs and desires of their users.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, dropped some less than subtle hints to Time Magazine last week, suggesting that the company would have some kind of mobile payments platform to offer with the next iphone. It’s not difficult to see how a global, frictionless, digital currency might get in the way of those plans. 

But it’s also important to keep in mind that Bitcoin is going through some serious growing pains right now. These are Bitcoin’s awkward, teen years, when it just keeps rolling with the wrong kids and getting into trouble. In the last six months, the biggest news stories about Bitcoin have involved the arrests of an alleged drug kingpin and the twenty-something millionaire that may or may not have been laundering money for his customers. And it’s still anyone’s guess as to how governments will choose to regulate Bitcoin, or even how they will define it. So, it’s not inconceivable that Apple, a notoriously skittish company, might shy away from Bitcoin for the moment.

This seemed to be the impression that CoinJar got from its dealings with Apple. After having its app pulled, it explained to its users:

Before you start DDOSing and trolling, Apple have done nothing wrong in this situation, they are just managing their own legal liability. We have had amicable discussions with them and hope they will support us in the future, when they have a more clear view of Bitcoin’s place in their regulatory landscape.

Regardless of how angry people are about this decision, the reality is that Bitcoin is still so small that it can’t yet muster an impressive public outcry. Of course, there’s already a petition started, but I’m guessing that Apple has made up its mind on this one, and it’s not likely to change course, even if people start shooting their phones with canons tomorrow. I say, Bitcoiners, do what you do best, and opt out!  

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
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A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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