The Paper Airplane Guy at Maker Faire

Every year, you never know what wonders to expect at the Maker Faire Bay Area, taking place on May 21 and 22 at the San Mateo Fairgrounds. But there are a handful of makers who have been there since the very first Faire in 2006. One of these makers is John Collins, The Paper Airplane Guy. It’s truly inspirational to chat with him and hear his perspective on the Faire over the years (and about making in general). One of my (many) favorite lines is: “The only thing anyone ever knows, in advance, about Maker Faire, is that there’s no other energy like it on Earth. That’s why people come back.”

1. Tell us about The Paper Airplane Guy. What inspires you to bring paper airplanes to the masses?
The Paper Airplane Guy started out to be the teacher guy. About halfway through achieving that, I fell into a television job and then a radio job at the same time. I’ve had very good luck with that career, which has lasted about 33 years to date. It’s the teacher inside that drives me to reach out with paper airplanes. There’s a moment in almost every presentation when someone’s eyes light up. They get it; not just the fun but also the science. It’s the art of taking something simple, pulling back the curtain to reveal the hidden complexity, and then reveling in that moment of discovery. Then closing the curtain again, but not without showing where the controls are.

The best teachers are very adept at showing the clues, allowing for discovery, and really making learning an organic experience. Paper airplanes have the scientific method built into them. Every throw is a hypothesis, an experiment, a data collection, and a result to be analyzed. Few think of it that way. In fact, paper airplanes have a rather nefarious edge to them. I lean on that a little in an effort to attract people who ordinarily don’t think of themselves as scientists or even as liking science. It’s one of the cheapest labs in the world, and most of the US throws the raw materials away by the ton. I briefly repurpose a few sheets. It’s a short interruption of the life cycle of a piece of paper.

2. What are you planning for this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area?
I plan to let people throw a lot more planes. The contest idea was fun last year. People had a blast throwing at the target. Just when everyone was having a great time throwing, we’d stop them and move the throwing line back, all in the name of finding a winner. This year, I think I’ll forget the competition part. Just show up, make your plane, and hit the target. Simple. Of course, I’ll do demonstrations all through both days. I’ll bring a few books along. My two crazy friends who help with all this for bridge toll will be there, Whitney and Sal. We’re going all out every hour of both days to show off, and show what folded paper airplanes can do. We don’t know how to do this event any other way.

3. You’ve participated in every Maker Faire Bay Area since 2006. Give us some insight into your perspective over the years and why you continue to come back.
The first year, I was an accidental booth. They already had someone lined up to do paper airplanes. That person bailed just a couple of days before. One of the organizers had heard about me, somehow. This was a brand new concept, so there was really no official way one should “do” Maker Faire. It was really amazing that first year. It was a coming out of sorts for all these people cooking stuff up in their basements and garages. You could see the way people would be drawn to an exhibit and have these “aha” moments. The exhibits drew in people who immediately spoke the language. Deep programming conversations were within earshot of crocheting tips. One guy played the drums and knitted at the same time. It was, in a word, wonderful.

I have to laugh when I hear people talking about how commercial it’s become, how it’s not as raw or real as the first year. I completely disagree. I have to even wonder if they were there. To me, Maker Faire, like all art, continues to expand. Art never contracts, in spite of new edifices being invented at lightning speed. You don’t ever get less art. You get different art. Maker Faire grows. Some of us have done every Bay Area show. There are new and amazing things every year. It’s never the same. If you show up looking for a Maker Faire that has gone before, you’ll be disappointed. Hey, we’re making this up every year. Hence the name.

Who knows which building we’ll be in, whether I’ll do a main stage show, or whether there’s even a main stage. The only thing anyone ever knows, in advance, about Maker Faire, is that there’s no other energy like it on Earth. That’s why people come back.

4. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
My dad was a great inspiration. He could fix anything. He was a millwright for a sawmill in Humboldt County. Though he didn’t have much in the way of formal education, he was very in tune with why things worked. With only a 6th graded education, he had figured out enough rudimentary trigonometry to plan and build any structure for a house or a sawmill. He had a great facility with numbers, again, in his own way. He had a real understanding of materials and their utility. He feared no heavy machinery. I, on the other hand, was scared to death when I followed around after him at the mill. Danger seemed to be everywhere, like the oil-blackened sawdust. Large blades, loud motors, and enormous metal machines: it all seemed uncontrollable. But he managed to keep this huge monstrosity running and chewing up giant logs.

I was lucky to have a great biology teacher in high school: Mr. James Welsh. I had a great speech and communications teacher who fostered a love of public speaking: Mrs. Marilyn Fletcher. I had a really cool civics teacher: Mr. Joe Edwards. He loved to engage students one on one and really treated us like adults, responsibility and all. I liked the way that felt. These teachers all made it look effortless. The masters always do. It took me a while to figure out exactly how much work all of that really was.

5. Is your project strictly a hobby or a business? Does it relate to your day job?
Paper airplanes are a hobby that’s become a small business. I sell books. I have a subscription website. I have an iPhone app. And, I’ll never get rich making paper airplanes. That’s just not going to happen. I use some of my experience at making TV to put together video for my website and YouTube. Sometimes I’ll get a chance to be a guest on a TV show. But really, I’ve been making planes for 40 years. I’ve had a book out there for more than 20. If I was going to get rich quick, it would’ve already happened. That said, I’ve met people I never would’ve met, gone places I never would’ve gone, all because I kept folding paper airplanes. It has been one amazing ride. It’s an inexpensive hobby to start with. I’ve monetized it a little. But if you add up all the hours of folding, drawing, testing, shooting, editing, and posting, I doubt it all adds up to half of minimum wage. It’s a hobby I love. I do little better than defray expenses over the long haul.

6. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
The duration record has just been broken by a really gifted paper airplane maker from Japan, Takuo Toda. That’s really amazing. He may eventually crack 30 seconds. Get a stopwatch and throw a plane sometime. See what kind of effort a 10-second throw involves. Mr. Toda is a paper airplane god.

That Jeopardy-playing computer feels like more of a breakthrough than most people have reported. The nuance with which it handles the game amazes me. One expects a computer to be fast, but this is clearly something else.

A program I produce for KRON just featured a smog-eating roof material. Boral roofing makes a concrete tile that neutralizes nitrogen compounds before they can interact with VOCs. So, it really eats pre-smog. Either way, a 2,000-square-foot roof can prevent about the amount of smog you make driving a small car for a year (round numbers based on averages). That’s a step in the right direction.

The Paper Airplane Guy with Students

7. What is your motto?
I can’t say that I have one besides the obvious one for this interview: MAKE!

8. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?
If you have a passion for a particular field, go with that. It’s impossible to know where that’ll lead, and you shouldn’t care — at least until you have to pay rent. If you’re doing something because you think you should, but your mind keeps drifting back to what you want to do, drop everything and follow your heart. Here’s the secret: if you’re not doing what you love, you’ll never be the best. Someone who really loves it will study it harder, work it longer, forgo sleep and food just to be doing it. You can’t compete against that. You have to be that.

I’ve worked at making a book about paper airplanes, but I’ve never worked a single minute inventing a new plane. I’ve always envied musicians. They play for a living. It’s not really play of course. They study and practice. They learn the artifice and the language. They eventually push past the mechanical and structural parts to express emotions and ideas. All that work to get to “play.” In a small way, my planes are like that for me. It’s not a living, but in the world of paper airplanes, I can play.

Thanks for your words of wisdom, John! Looking forward to seeing you at the Faire. For all the information you need about the Maker Faire Bay Area 2011, including how to get advanced tickets, check out the Maker Faire site.