Sunday, April 7, 2024

Guest Post: Disaster Entertainment Options

  by George Groot

George is a member of our Facebook Group and has written for us before. 

Years ago, the tornado warning siren went off in our neighborhood. We took the kids to the basement and brought along a laptop so they could watch some cartoons while we waited for the storm to pass. We’ve since moved away from that area, and now live in a home without a basement, so our tornado room is an internal bathroom where we keep some basic survival kit under the sink. But if we lose power for days (such as after a hurricane) I still want to keep the boys and myself entertained, and that means having battery-powered devices or options that don’t require batteries. 

Streaming services such as Netflix, Spotify, YouTube, Hulu, Crunchyroll, Amazon, Disney+, etc. all offer complete libraries of drama, romance, adventure, comedy, and horror at the convenience of nearly any screen capable of accessing the internet. This is an incredible bargain for a lot of people who don’t have the means to purchase physical media of every movie, TV show, or program that they find entertaining. However, it also means that entertainment is connected to steady broadband internet access that’s not always available during or after an emergency. In fact, once you get through an emergency there can be a lot of time spent just waiting for normal to return.

In the spirit of You Always Have Other Options (YAHOO), here are the options as I see them:
  1. Physical books. The great thing about the dead tree format is that it doesn’t need to be recharged. However books can be bulky, and it can get expensive to keep expanding on your private library just in case a disaster happens. My wife and I love shopping in thrift stores for used books, and often they have a good selection of DVDs.
  2. Physical disks. DVD or Blu-ray disks are “old tech” at this point, but they last indefinitely if they are not all scratched up. These can be used with DVD or Blu-ray players and a screen, or they can be played on a computer, such as a laptop. Not every laptop comes with a built-in DVD drive these days, so we’ll look at that in a bit. We have a habit of shopping for bargains in the $5 bin at Walmart for DVDs or Blu-ray disks.
  3. Digital copies of books. A Kindle or e-reader can store lots of ebooks and last quite a bit of time on battery power. These are much more compact than the dead tree format, but are also a single point of failure if the device breaks. Erin wrote an article about her “Survival e-Reader” years ago. 
  4. Digital copies of visual media. You just store these as files on your local disk, or on your network attached storage device. If you set up a media server, like Jellyfin or Plex, you can even have the server handle transcoding duties to save battery life on your display device for movies and TV shows. If you don’t want to set up a home server you can use a USB drive of sufficient size to store the digital copies, and plug that external drive into a playback device.
  5. Digital music. I know there are audiophiles that would rather listen to the end of the world on vinyl than any other format, but for the rest of us it's very easy to rip our music to digital format and use an old smartphone as a playback device with cheap earbuds kept on hand. 
BCP isn't a tech support blog, so the hardware and software needed to build and deploy a home server that serves as network attached storage and media server is beyond the scope of this article, but a quick search on any search engine will show you many step-by-step guides to doing that particular chore. However, even as a tech guy I don’t recommend putting all your eggs in the digital basket. I realized quite quickly that a home server is a “nice to have”, not a necessity for keeping kids entertained.

Getting Started
My recommendation is to get started with physical disks, physical books, a low power draw/long battery life laptop such as an Ultrabook, and a USB disk player if you need one. This will cover the vast majority of entertainment needs for children of all ages, and most disruptions are measured in hours instead of days.

The next upgrade from there is the external USB storage device, but you’ll want a big one. A normal DVD contains about 4.7 gigabytes of data, so I don’t recommend drives less than 4 terabytes for spinning hard drives, or 2 terabytes for solid state drives (SSD). You will also need some method of recharging batteries, which can be as simple as a 12V plug into a vehicle accessory outlet, or as complex as an off-grid generation system. 

To “rip” media from disk to digital format you’ll want a more powerful computer than a low power draw laptop, but you’ll not need something bleeding edge tech either. You will need some ripping software like HandBrake or MakeMKV, and of the two I prefer MakeMKV (they release a free serial number every month for people using their beta version). Any 4th gen or newer Intel chip (Haswell or newer) with 4 cores should be sufficient for the task. You could get away with older CPUs, but it’ll just take longer per disk.

A word of caution about Chromebooks: while they have a very low power draw and generally a very long battery life, they will often be unable play DVDs through a USB attached disk drive. The version of Linux that ChromeOS is based on doesn't have the proprietary software enabled, which is why I recommend a good Windows or Apple laptop with long battery life for most people. If you are experienced with Linux, you don't need my advice on how to modify them. 

However, if you decide to go the home media server route, Chromebooks access those digital files through a web browser and work well as a cheap terminal for kids. If you have a machine that can rip those disks to an external disk drive using HandBrake or MakeMKV, then the Chromebook should be just fine as a playback device even through USB. A second word of caution about Chromebooks: if you buy them used you run the risk of getting an “end of life” product without any security update support.

What I Do
In my house we use all of these options:
  • If the internet goes down, but not power, we have a home media server.
  • If internet and power go down, we have laptops, disks, books, and the ability to use external drives. 
  • If we need to recharge, and our vehicles are functional, I have a 1500 watt inverter to recharge devices. 
  • My “to be read” pile of sci-fi novels keeps growing....
My wife has collapsed the disk collection we have down to boxes and books, minimizing the size/volume footprint for storing disks (It also means we dispose of the DVD jackets that take up a lot of space). After I rip them to digital format and put them on the Jellyfin server she has access to them as long as the house has power (or the UPS hasn’t died), but we still keep all the disks because it eliminates the server as a single point of failure. 

As Erin as said, “Morale is an important part of survival, and anything that makes your life better and takes your mind off boredom or miserable conditions is worthwhile.” This is especially true if you have children who are too little to be helpful, as keeping them happily entertained can keep you sane. 

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