Archive | January, 2012

The Anvil Podcast – Celestia

I recently spoke with Chris Laurel of the Celestia project. Celestia is a 3-D planetarium.

If the embedded player doesn’t work for you, you can download the audio directly in either mp3 or ogg format.

You can subscribe to this, and future podcasts, in iTunes or elsewhere, at, and it’s also listed in the iTunes store.

Rich: This is Rich Bowen and I’m speaking with Chris Laurel who is a member of the Celestia project. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Tell me something about Celestia. Tell us what it does and tell us how you got involved in this project.

Chris: Celestia is about 10 years old as of … well, actually it’s about 11 years old now, and I started it after leaving a job and taking some time off. I wanted to keep doing something related to my field, which is 3-D graphics programming. And I wanted to do something with 3D graphics that was something beyond just a game. I wanted to demonstrate that there’s some usefulness to the 3-D graphics beyond special effects for movies and games. And so, I decided to create Celestia. The other reason is that I’ve had a lifelong interest in astronomy and I always wondered what would be like actually stand on the surface of what the moons of Jupiter. This was right around the time that were starting to get some of these extrasolar planet discoveries and wondered what would the sky look like from the surface of these planets we were finding around other stars.

South America

And so the desire to make something useful with 3D graphics plus my interest in … wondering what it would look like to be in these places was what made me develop Celestia.

Celestia is a 3-D planetarium that lets you look at the universe from any point in space and at any particular time. So you can see the motions of planets around our sun. You can zoom away from our sun and see thousands of stars near by in 3 dimensions. You can zoom out further and see our galaxy and where it is located relative to other nearby galaxies. You can observe the motions of planets in time and the motions of binary stars orbiting each other. It’s really meant to give you this broad view of the universe – this visual experience

Rich: Where does your data come from?


Chris: We have a lot of sources. There’s no single catalog that covers all these different objects. Stars are from the European space agency Hipparcos mission. This is to date the only large catalog of stars that has their distances measured. It turns out that accurately measuring the position of star in the sky is very easy but measuring the distance requires extremely high precision. So far the only catalog available is the Hipparcos catalog.

The orbits of the planets come from different sources. There’s something called the VSOP 87 which is this complex theory for the orbits of the planets in our solar system. Then there are other theories for the orbits of the moons around planets.

The surfaces of the planets and moons are derived from images acquired by missions to various planets. Voyager, Cassini, the Viking Mission to Mars. Pretty much all the interplanetary missions in the last couple decades have contributed in some way to Celestia.


Rich: Is all of that data free?

Chris: Yes, it’s all free. This is all scientific data, and it’s all generated by these government supported agencies like NASA and the European space agency and JAXA from Japan. And they all make this data freely available so that scientists can analyze it and then write papers and learn things about our universe.

Rich: What kind of things do you have in the pipeline for future versions of Celestia.

Chris: I think one of the most important things right now is sorting out the user interface a little bit. A common complaint about the Celestia is that it’s extremely hard to figure out all the different non-obvious keyboard commands that are required to navigate around the universe. That’s an area where Celestia needs some development. And then we always want to improve the visual qualities of Celestia – just improve the graphics, make it look more realistic, take advantage of some of the new features are available in 3-D graphics hardware that were not available when we started 10 years ago.


Rich: I noticed while looking through the release history that there’s a two year gap, about 2009 until early this year. What inspired you to pick the project back up and start releasing versions again?

Chris: It’s free software so I don’t make money from Celestia. There’s times when I have to work on other projects and I get busy with those. When I have more free time available, I do more work on the project. There are other people that are also working on Celestia. I’m certainly not the only developer. They have similar time constraints. We’re all doing this for fun. We don’t get paid. When we have time available, we work on it. But unfortunately as you’ve noticed, we don’t have enough time to be constantly updating it. So there’s gaps.

Rich: Yeah, one never does.

Rich: If someone wanted to get involved in your project, what sort of openings might there be?

Chris: Celestia supports these add-ons which are our packages of data about planets galaxies and stars, that you can use to expand the universe in Celestia. And so we’re always looking for people to take new data sets from planetary missions or from telescopic missions, and importing that into Celestia to expand the universe of Celestia. Make sure we have all the latest, and most accurate, and most complete data available.

Rich: Tell me some more about these plug-ins. How many contributors do you have for that? What sort of data they brought to the project?

Chris: Maybe 100 people or so have contributed add-ons and made them publicly available. I know they’re quite a few more people that create these things just for their organizations or for their own entertainment. There’s a site called the Celestia Motherlode where a lot of people have uploaded these add-ons. Things you can find there are high-resolution planet textures, 3-D models of asteroids and spacecraft, and the trajectories of the spacecraft. So you can follow the New Horizon’s mission to Pluto or the MSL – the Curiosity mission to Mars. Catalogs of comets. Then there are things that are more speculative, such as … people will take the known data about an extra-planetary system, and expand on it and produce their own imagined surfaces for these planets around other stars. And then there’s a lot of people that like to use it to take spacecraft from Star Trek or something like that …


Rich: [laughs] I was going to ask that.

Chris: Yeah. There are a lot of people doing that, and that’s certainly not something that we have in the base Celestia package which is all completely reality-based. If people want to use it to live their favorite science fiction series or movie that’s great.

Rich: That’s pretty cool. I was just going to ask if anyone was using it for fictional stuff.

Chris: Yeah, in fact some of the Star Trek models in particular have gotten very detailed, and really well done. It’s cool stuff, even though it’s not not my domain.

Rich: My wife and I are big Trek fans. Maybe I’ll play with that some.

Chris: You absolutely should. The Trek stuff is great. We have some very devoted Trek fans who are Celistia users.


One thing I’d like to say is that we’re pretty careful about what data we allow in Celestia. We try to keep it very realistic and don’t enhance anything. But we have to make some guesses in a few places, such as these extrasolar planets. We have some speculation as to what they look like, but we can’t see them from Earth right now. We don’t have telescopes that are powerful enough. So we sort of have to make some guesses there. But in general, there’s very little speculation involved in the visuals in Celestia.

I always like to emphasize this is … just because I’m talking about Celestia doesn’t mean I’m the the sole developer by any means. We’ve had a lot of people contributing over the last decade on the project, and not just in creating add-ons, but a lot of work on the code a lot of work on the very complex process of taking these scientific data sets and turning them into something you can visualize in your PC. I always like to make sure that credit is given here.

Rich: Thanks so much for talking to me.

Chris: Thank you, and have fun exploring Celestia!

Writing press releases for your projects

If you follow us on Twitter, you will have noticed an uptick in our activity there. (If you don’t follow us on Twitter, you should. @sourceforge)

Most of this activity comes directly from the projects that are hosted here.

So, this article is for two things. First, I want to tell you how to post a news item on your project. Then I want to give you a few pointers in writing a press release in this age of Twitter.

If your project is running on SourceForge Classic, items posted to the News page (Select News in the Develop menu, then click Submit) are aggregated in a place that I can get to them, and I then post as many of those to Twitter as seem to be release announcements, and that I have time for in a given day.


If your project is running the latest version of SourceForge (code-named Allura), anything you post in the project blog is also aggregated for me. The blog tool isn’t enabled by default on Allura projects. However, even if you already have a blog somewhere else, what I recommend is that you enable the blog tool (Click Admin, then Tools) and create a blog called “Release Notes”, or something similar, where you can post release announcements.


Which brings me to part two – what should you write?

The most important thing to keep in mind when you write release notes, or any kind of press release, is that it will be seen out of context. That is, your announcement is going to be taken and published elsewhere, and the person reading it may not be familiar with your project. Because of this, you should tell them everything they need to know, in every release note.

This may seem overkill when looking at a list of news items all of which describe your project. But when someone sees the message on Twitter, or on Facebook, or in a tech magazine, they don’t have your website in front of them, and you need to tell them everything.

Bad press release:

v1.34 released! Shiny stuff. Fixed bug #844.

Good press release:

Click Track version 1.3.0 released. Click Track is a Metronome and click track generator for Android.

* Change position of click track marker.
* Delete click track marker.
* Add click track marker.
* Added help.
* Added XML editor tool.
* Added WAV to MP3 tool.

As an added bonus, you’ll notice that the first paragraph is less than 140 characters, so I can immediately copy and paste it into Twitter. This has the benefit that it’s more likely to get picked up and retweeted by other people, and possibly eventually make it into some tech news aggregator or newsletter. The extra few minutes it takes to condense your good news into 140 characters can really pay off in getting new eyes on your project, and new participants in your community.

Of course, it also saves me a little time, which increases the chance that you’ll end up in the @sourceforge Twitter stream.

So, to summarize:

* Write good press releases
* Follow @sourceforge on Twitter
* Keep releasing awesome software

Chris Tsai, Support Ninja

This week, Chris Tsai took a few days of vacation time, and I covered for him.

Let me clarify. When I say “I covered for him”, what I mean is that I tried, frantically, to keep up with the flow of email, tickets, and IRC queries, which Chris handles all day, every day.

Chris is our front-line technical support guy at SourceForge. He’s the guy that gets your complaints, comments, and bug reports, via the ticket system, email, and IRC. These queries vary from password reset requests and requests for documentation to requests for legal advice and help on getting some of our projects’ software working.

By the way, we are a project hosting company, and we have thousands of projects hosted here. We are not, and cannot be, experts on all of those projects, so requests for help on configuring FileZilla and editing audio with Audacity are redirected to those communities.

And we are not lawyers, and so request for legal advice are redirected to the Software Freedom Law Center.

I thought, when he showed me what I would need to do in his absence, that it would be a snap, and I would be able to get my own job done too. Not so. I quickly discovered that Chris is a support ninja, and that I can’t hope to measure up to his skills. It’s not that the volume of support requests was huge, but, rather, that because of the number of different developer tools we offer at SourceForge, Chris has to know an awful lot of things in order to answer the breadth of questions that are asked.

SourceForge offers revision control using Subversion, Git, and Mercurial. We have the ability to host various applications in your web space, as well as wikis, ticket trackers, databases, mailing lists, and discussion forums, and Chris supports all of these, with, as far as I can tell, a relatively small percentage of the inbound requests being escalated up to the second line of defense.

So, all of that to say, you are in good hands when you host your project at SourceForge.

Oh, and also, that Chris is never allowed to take a vacation again.


[[Rich’s Note: This entry was submitted by Giorgio Tani from the PeaZip project. If you’d like to write up something about your project and have it featured on the SourceForge blog, please email me directly at]]

The PeaZip project started in 2006, aiming to create a file archiver providing an unified, cross-platform GUI for many Open Source technologies (over the time it was added support for 7-Zip/p7zip, FreeArc, PAQ, UPX, etc…).

So, unlike classic Windows file archivers like i.e. WinZip and WinRar, PeaZip is structured as a frontend for multiple tools, like Ark and FileRoller does on Linux systems, this results in a comprehensive, modular tool, capable of handling all the most popular archive formats (130+ file types).

(This is a preview of an upcoming release.)

Since the beginning of the project I chose Lazarus/FreePascal as development environment for PeaZip for many reasons: it is an Open Source project itself (and is assiduously developed, and can rely on a wide and active community), I appreciate Delphi language, and, most important, it allows to create cross-platform graphic applications using native GUI’s API of the target system, which means resulting application are fully integrated in the target system in terms of functionalities and look & feel.

This allows PeaZip source code to be compiled for Win32, GTK2 and Qt, and of course it opens endless possibilities of porting as Lazarus project progress and supports newer environments.

(This is a preview of an upcoming release.)

Year after year, users’ feedback and suggestions actively shaped the evolution of the project, opening it to integrate a wide array of advanced file/archive management features (search, bookmarking, thumbnail viewer, hashing, find duplicate files…), especially focused on security (strong encryption, two factor authentication, encrypted password manager, secure deletion…).

The archive creation/conversion/extraction dialogs feature an innovative and easy to use interface, more similar to CD burners interfaces rather than to a classic file compressor.


This design makes extremely simple to check (and update) items set for compression and extraction, integrating a full featured file manager component.

Tasks being created in the GUI, if desired, can be saved as batch scripts, in order to automate backup operations, or for fine tuning, or for learning purpose – a concept featured since the beginning of the project, aiming to bridge the gap between the ease of use of GUI applications and power and flexibility of console.

PeaZip is available for Windows and Linux, for both platforms either as installable and as portable software, not needing installation, an ideal choice for environments where it is not possible, or not desired, to modify the host system, or to have the application available in a removable device, or just to try it.


PeaZip for Linux is desktop neutral, and meant to run on Gnome and KDE as well as on different desktop environments.

Please note that Linux installers (DEB, RPM, and TGZ are available) are generic, meant to be compatible with as many distributions and versions as possible rather than integrating at the best with a specific distribution/version, so it is recommended to check repositories of your distribution for specific packages.

The Anvil Podcast – MuseScore

Rich: I recently spoke with Thomas Bonte and Nicolas Froment about the MuseScore project.

As the name suggests, MuseScore is musical software for the creation and editing of musical scores. It has a wide variety of tools for creating scores with multiple instruments, multiple voices, inserting lyrics, and all sorts of related functionality.

If the embedded player doesn’t work for you, you can download the audio in mp3 or ogg formats.

You can subscribe to this, and future podcasts, in iTunes or elsewhere, at, and it’s also listed in the iTunes store.

So here’s my conversation with Thomas and Nicholas.

Rich: I’ve been playing with MuseScore this morning and, I have to say I’m really impressed with it. I remember about 10 years ago looking for some exactly like this. A friend of mine was working with a small choir, and he was looking for a way to do this sort of score creation. We couldn’t find anything all. This would have been perfect at the time and it’s a very impressive piece of software.

Are you two the whole team or is there a larger team of developers working on this?

Thomas: There’s one more person who is missing. His name is Werner Schweer. He comes from Germany. He’s the lead developer of MuseScore, and he started with it in 2002, or something like that. So we are nine years, actually almost 10 years later. And now we have a contributor community of one hundred fifty people, or even more. Those are people contributing code, or translations, or documentation, or graphics, and so on and so on. So it’s quite a lot of people now.

Rich: I saw on the website a map of schools that are using this. What kind of stories do you have about people using this in instruction?

Thomas: Actually we don’t know that much about schools using MuseScore, other than, well, they just installed the software on their PCs or or even 100 PCs, or even more, and then they use it with the students. We do have some feedback sometimes. Some teachers shared a video with us while he was teaching MuseScore, but other that that it’s sometimes a lot of mystery for us how MuseScore is being used within classrooms. So other than the map, we don’t have that much feedback actually.

Rich: I’m always interested to see how open source is used specifically in education directly with the students. Do you have any of those students come back and participate in the community after having experienced the software?

Thomas: Yes. So, obviously, we have quitea vibrant community website on the We see lots of people asking questions there. But it’s not so much about the use-case being student or being teachers, just about while asking how the software works for doing this or doing that. So far we have, like, 20,000 people registered on The forum is very lively, so people by now know if they have a problem, they can post it, and within one hour they have answers. So that’s really great. The live support is probably one of our strongest points and that’s something that people don’t expect of Open Source software. They expect that they won’t be able to get support, and as soon as they have tasted the support, the live support of the community, it’s like, whoa, it’s super great. That’s one of the points we really excel on.

R I was looking for sheet music that I could download, and I found a lot of classical music that is in the public domain but do you see people using this for original composition as well?

Thomas: Yes, for both actually. Composition as well as for transcribing existing music by ear or copying it from paper, like lots of public domain stuff. It’s hard to say what the distribution is between the three of them, but we almost say it’s kind of equal. Mostly people who have their sheet music on paper, they want to do one thing, and it’s transpose. So they copy it over into MuseScore and transpose. Lots of music composition students who want to share the stuff online and get feedback on how they can improve and so on, and then people just transcribing by ear because they don’t have sheet music, and mostly these are teachers who want to transcribe and pass on the music to students. These are the three big groups that use MuseScore.

Nicholas: Maybe another one is … a lot of people arranging for choir, and glee, and marching bands, and churches. A lot of people use it in churches.

Rich: Are the two of you musicians yourselves?

Nicholas: Sure. I’m a drummer.

Thomas: I’m a piano player, and our lead developer is a piano player as well.

Rich: So you all are developing this for your own personal use, then?

Nicholas: Yes, sure.

Thomas: Indeed.

Rich: What sort of things are planned for future versions of the software?

Thomas: For MuseScore … what we call 2.0, it’s the next major release, we plan to broaden up our market a bit, in the sense that we don’t have the guitar players right now, because guitar players, a lot of them use tablature. Tablature will be supported in MuseScore 2.0. That’s obviously a large chunk of the market.

And then, on the other side, we also want to get a bit more into the high-end, and those are people composing or transcribing big orchestral scores, and for them we have linked part editing, which means that you can just edit one specific part while the full orchestral score just follows along if you want. So you have it all in and one score you can easily edit your whole orchestral score.

We cover all kinds of instruments and all kinds of instrument players, so MuseScore 2.0 is about targeting everyone. That’s the main goal for MuseScore 2.0.

Nicholas: Something we want to do as well is make it look nicer. Make a better design of the UI. We haven’t gotten complaints, but some people say it doesn’t look good. Or not good enough.

Thomas: We have to compete with commercial software, and of course commercial software like Sibelius and Finale are our biggest competitors, and they are in the market already 20 years now. So we’re still pretty young, and in order to appeal to all people, we have to make the software even more easy to use, and the UI and UX is something that we have to work on. And as often with Open Source, that’s something that doesn’t happen magically, like what is happening with the code itself. So we might have to push a bit on that. That means paying a designer. So if there are designers listening along and wants to help us on this, we might just start a KickStarter project, and raise some money from the community and pay a designer with it, because so far in all these years we haven’t had a professional designer stepping on board and trying to make the software better.

Rich: When someone is entering a piece of music what are the different ways that one can enter that music? Obviously you can edit it on the screen but there is a MIDI interface as well, is that correct?

Nicholas: That’s correct. You can do it with a mouse, you just click on the lines or between the lines, to put your notes. You can do it with the keyboard of the computer as well. You press the notes, C, D, E, F, and so on. And there are some shortcuts to change the octave, and move the notes on different lines. And you can do it with a MIDI keyboard. When you do it with a MIDI keyboard. When you do it with a MIDI keyboard, some people expect that you just play, and the music display on the screen magically. This is not the case. You play the chords, or you play the notes, and you change the rhythm with the computer keyboard.

Thomas: That’s called step entry mode.

To add something to your question of what’s next for the future – a the moment, MuseScore is a desktop app. It’s kind of limited, if you see that the mobile stuff is just taking off rapidly now. And so one of things that we envision as well for the future is that we bring MuseScore not only to mobile, but also to the Web. From the desktop, to the Web, to mobile, and launch some kind of hub. Actually last year we launched, and it’s a sister website for, where all MuseScore users can make an account and upload their sheet music to, and then share with the people they want to share with, and of course having all the sheet music in their proper account on, could also be able then to load it into their mobile devices. Currently we’re making mobile applications for IOS and Android, and more is to come. And software is Open Source as well. So this is in fact a call to developers – if you want to make an app using sheet music, than they could use a library within the MuseScore project, which they can just use inside their own application in order to display the sheet music, to play it back, to transpose it, to play a few parts, and so on and so on. So that’s something for the future as well.