Thoughts on Paper Planes

Posted on Feb 10, 2013

In my first year of college, there was a festival of sorts on campus. It was a day designed to provide the college with goodwill and easy photo ops for the pamphlets they would use to lure freshmen the next year. Though only a side-effect in the sight of those organizing the event, it managed to provide those of us who would normally spend the entire day in class with a chance to stop and imagine what it would be like to relax.

In place of the classes we'd normally attend, there was a smattering of small contests and games offering up small prizes or possibly the chance to submerge a faculty member, should you have the motor control to connect a baseball with a small red dot. Passing this by, another game caught my eye: a simple paper-airplane contest. Just make a paper airplane and launch it the farthest. Like all the games that day, the winner would get a prize of no consequence. Still, I found this game particularly interesting. The rules were simple enough that no one had to think about them twice:

  • You could use one sheet of paper.
  • You could shape it in any way you liked
  • You were allowed one attempt to throw your creation
  • Whichever went the farthest won.

I couldn't resist the lure of rules so simple. Each person would build their plane and then throw it, a judge marking where it had landed. As many paper planes do, most flew straight down. Some skidded forward a few feet. A lucky few actually achieved some noticeable measure of flight. When my turn came, I crushed the page I had been given into the most dense sphere one could imagine. I edged up to the line, imagining myself walking into baseball's hall of fame, and unleashed what must have been a perfect pitch.

The perverse benefit of my plane's air-unworthy shape was that, though it lent no lift, it also provided negligible drag. My spherical plane flew in an arch far past where the furthest had previously landed, eventually making it to the wall. My plane, using one sheet and one throw, won by no small margin. I walked away with the CD of an artist I'd not heard of before, nor since, all the while continuing my imaginary induction as one of baseball's all time heroes.

On a not-so-unrelated note, I don't usually put great faith in incentive programs aimed at developers, testers, designers, or anyone else in the software development process. Feel free to extrapolate why.