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YMCA summer camp director Don Jennings writes in:

Summer camp runs on signals – bells, bugles, claxons, etc. And though the old-timers grumble, the days of folks pulling a rope, blowing a horn or turning a crank are mostly gone. Camp signals have gone digital, and therein lies the challenge.

Our current system for playing bugle calls is Rube Goldbergian in the extreme. I won’t even attempt to describe it except to say it involves an answering machine tape, a PA system, bullhorns, and an entire software suite of home management software. All of this to run 20 seconds of bugle, 8 times each day. It’s an embarassment of Byzantine seat-of-the-pants hackery that only works part of the time.

In my 50% geek heart I know there must be an elegant, inexpensive way to play digital bugle calls at specific times of the day, for discrete durations. There just *has* to be. And so my appeal to your readers.

Can you or your communities offer any advice? A solution would garner the enthusiastic gratitude of dozens of summer camp communities.

The camp runs on Windows XP, and a solution would have to be comfortable on that platform. Do you have any ideas?

There are tons of automation programs out there. Mac OS X has Automator which works with AppleScript, you can make cron jobs on a Linux server, but I’m going to suggest you use Windows Task Scheduler for your situation. It’s free, already on your camp’s Windows XP machines, and should be relatively easy to set up. That said, I’m sure there are free utilities out there you could download to do this as well, but I’m not a frequent enough Windows user to be able to suggest any. If any readers know of something that would work , please post it in the comments!

My main squeeze, Alex Schlegel, helped me figure this one out for you. You can program the Task Scheduler to play a sound file however often you want throughout the day, every day, using Windows Media Player (the older version, mplayer2.exe, because the newer wmplayer.exe doesn’t respond to the /close command line argument). You can schedule a task to, at regular intervals, open the media player, play the sound, then close. This does not have to be a dedicated machine, but you’ll have the sound hooked up to the PA system, so whatever computer you use should have its user interface sounds (system notifications, etc.) turned off.

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You can use any one of the Windows Task Manager tutorials available online to get yourself acquainted with the program, but since you’re 50% geek I’m sure you can play it by ear. Access it through your control panel, and create a new task. Select that you want it to occur daily, with a start time when you want the first call to happen. Then hit “Advanced” to repeat the task throughout the day, with a finish time when the last sound will happen. Alex took a few screenshots to help out.

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Once you create a new task, it will open a wizard that will make you pick a program to run from a list (at this point it doesn’t really matter what program you pick, but to be on the safe side you might browse to “C:Program FilesWindows Media Playermplayer2.exe”), and select how often you want it to occur (once per day in your case), but on the last page there’s a checkbox that says “Open advanced properties for this task when i click Finish.” This will open the screen that allows you to input the command line text to play the audio file:

“C:Program FilesWindows Media Playermplayer2.exe” /play /close C:WindowsMediatada.wav

Replace the path to “tada.wav” with whatever bugle sound you want (a 20 second mp3, for example). If you want the sound to play at non-regular intervals, you’ll have to create a task for each bell throughout the day. Once you get it up and running, though, you should hardly have to touch it.

The photo at the top is the “time for thought” area at the summer camp I attended as a child (Windham Tolland 4H in Pomfret, CT), taken by my camp buddy Natalie Carter.