Solver Stories: Ted Ground

// Louise Leone // Apr 26, 2021

My name is Ted Ground - “When working on solutions, solitude is important. Take walks in the woods, or on the beach. Take a bike ride. Spend a day in the library, alone. Reading books and remembering news articles and books that you have read, years ago, seems to help - a lot!”solver_3-1

I am a 5th generation Texan - my ancestors settled in Texas in 1848. I have 4 exceptional children, and 4 wonderful grandchildren. While I have traveled some, to a tolerable degree, I plan to live the rest of my life here in Texas, where my grandchildren live. I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and several years later, I earned my Master’s degree in Aquatic Biology at Texas State University writing a thesis about water quality in freshwater reservoirs of Texas.

As a technical writer and consultant for many different projects, I have been self-employed for much of my career. I have worked in positions related to natural resources, environmental science, and analytical instrument labs, up to management levels. I’ve also been in technical sales for water filtration and process control equipment companies. At a young age, I plowed fields with our farm tractors, I hauled hay, worked in carpentry, and general construction. I mention this only because I think it is more important to try to do things, and to make things, than it is to just think about things. But “access to tools” is necessary.

I have broad interests in science and technology, from astronomy to zoology. Innovations in specialized fields, such as aerospace propulsion, aquaculture, and geothermal, nuclear, and solar energy, capture my attention. I am fascinated by exploration and commercial development of the solar system. But, back here on Earth, I am interested in reversing desertification with developments in solar thermal desalination, and sustainable agriculture’s role in that, tied to soil conservation, and managed grazing.

Expertise is a moving target to aim for. We learn from research and experience, apply what we learn, and then, from refining those applications, we learn more, in a continuous process. To continue learning new things, thinking about new ways of doing things, and actually doing them, is part of a rewarding life. It can keep me busy and balanced, passing time with pastimes, which is all I have left here!

 You might say that I was recruited to the platform by roving “curiosity”. The first problem that I ever tackled was the Mars Balance Mass challenge. The idea for a solution struck me immediately, with some help from watching the clouds at sunset. I sat at my computer keyboard, on a workbench and makeshift desk, in the laundry room of my brother’s farmhouse, near Rising Star, Texas, where I lived for several years. It was a good place to think, and to write. In about a week I had it written up, with cited references, and drafted graphics, to illustrate my idea. Solitude helped fuel and feed my one-man army on a solitary march – a party of one, and a Lone Star R&D think tank. Over the next year, I would write 68 of “my ideas” there, at that simple desk, made of painted plywood and lumber.

It would be months before I was notified about NASA’s evaluations. In the meantime, I pressed on, trying my hand at 9 other challenges despite having learned nothing about winning or losing the NASA Challenge. I’ve no clue what motivated me to continue writing, except that engaging in these pastimes was its own reward.

Later that year, I won my first award, for “Identifying Novel Sources of Trace Minerals”. It was totally unexpected news. It was great to win an award of $5,000, out of a $7,000 prize pool - I had won first place - Merry Christmas! It encouraged me to continue to enter, when and if I could, other challenges that I felt comfortable enough to try to compose ideas for. Later, that would change, as I tried my hand at composing ideas that “pushed the envelope” of my comfort zone.

Then, in early January, I was very surprised to read receive this email:

Dear Ted, It gives me great pleasure to let you know that the Seeker's review of your submission to InnoCentive 9933607 – NASA’s Balance Mass Challenge: Using “Dead Weight” on Mars Spacecraft to Advance Science and Technology - led to a favorable evaluation. You will be awarded a total of $20,000. The Seeker has provided you with the following feedback.

"This submission is an extremely well-thought out concept with very creative use of the Balance Mass Devices which would meet technical requirements. Good use of citations and historical comparison to sounding rocket investigations. What made this submission stand out was its simplicity and practicality with a potentially high yield in scientific knowledge. Little to no modification of the Mars Science Laboratory re-entry system would be required. Concept warrants further investigation into the availability of orbital and ground assets and feasibility of obtaining the desired data on the release of barium and/or other tracer elements. It is the opinion of the Balance Challenge review team that this challenge clearly stood out from the rest of the submissions and has been approved for the full $20,000 award. Congratulations for the creative thinking and useful solution!"

I was also invited to give a presentation to the scientists and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California later that year. I had hoped that my solution would have been used for the next NASA rover mission to land on Mars - named “Perseverance”. Underway now, it’s scheduled to land on Mars on February 18, 2021. Although it seemed to have been favorably welcomed at the presentation that I gave at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), unfortunately, it was not included in that mission. I try to follow news of that mission closely. Perhaps there is still hope that some version of my idea will be used in other, future missions to Mars, or even to Titan, since that moon of Saturn also has an atmosphere that calls for further observation and study. I hope so – for even more fun and novelty to help pass our time with!

It was only much later that I learned that there were 2,138 active solvers, with 219 proposals submitted from 43 countries. I was again very surprised that I won first place, or any award, with that level of competition.

One interesting thing to me is that many of my ideas existed in some form, before I ever learned or read about a particular challenge. For example, I have often wondered or day-dreamed about the atmosphere of Mars, or what polymers and composites could be made by “In-Situ Resource Utilization” (ISRU) of materials available on Mars. And, I have often wondered about finding better, more efficient, and less costly ways to desalinate water to help reverse desertification right here on good old Mother Earth. Sometimes it takes a challenge to come along and offer a game prize – an incentive to polish up, formalize, and articulate old antique ideas that I may have pondered, but were put on the shelf, years before.

I have only won about 24% of the challenges I have participated in, so I do not consider this a job or career. Solvers, or, players if you will, submit their intellectual property (ideas) as individual sellers in a kind of marketplace, with something like “game rules”, but there are significant differences. They may choose to sell products of creativity, and some, all, or none of their proprietary rights. It’s like holding a garage sale from time to time, in which businesses are “bargain hunters” shopping for products (ideas, or rights to use ideas) to buy from a Solver who may or may not agree to sell, for a certain price, perhaps some “old stuff” that has been cleaned up and polished a bit, for “curbside appeal”. There is some room for “price negotiation”, in a few cases. Each challenge is a separate pastime activity for me, but this is not a consistent hobby, as I define it. They are like word puzzles – but each is different and unique, and there may be more than one “right” set of answers or words that fit the puzzle, to win awards. That’s why there are often multiple individual winners, with different solutions, for any given challenge. These marketplace activities are distinct from games of chance, in that they involve more than just random chance or probability - there’s no betting, so this isn’t gambling, either. Although there may be some guesswork.

Some of my ideas existed before I ever learned of a particular challenge. Some ideas are still “on the shelf” and may never be “sold” or patented. I wonder if some ideas are really new (novel), since “there is nothing new under the sun”, as they say. More like antiques with a previous owner, who is himself an antique, some ideas are relics from a different age. Novelty or innovation might be created by using those old ideas, but in new ways. I might recall a 50-year old patent for a device to use in a new way to develop an “Environmentally Friendly Replacement for Buoy Mooring Systems”, as in a challenge some years back. Sometimes, old dogs can teach you new tricks.

When working on solutions, solitude is important. Take walks in the woods, or on the beach. Take a bike ride. Spend a day in the library, alone. Reading books, and remembering news articles and books that you have read, years ago, seems to help - a lot! Even if it turns out that your memory is not 100% accurate, it might hint at a connection, so go back and check it out. How might it be connected? I often think of something that I read 50 or more years ago, such as the case of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Around the time I was 12 to 14 years old, I was introduced to the Whole Earth Catalog. The by-line of that seminal publication was “Access to Tools”. It was about learning more about Whole Systems, especially ecosystems. The Whole Earth Catalog, was also about self-empowerment, and greater self-reliance, and “alternative” energy, that folks could gather from the environment at their own homestead: solar, wind, water, biomass. I was all about that. It literally changed my life and made an impression on me at that age.

Someone once said that the Whole Earth Catalog was the internet before the internet. Please check out A Short History of the Whole Earth Catalog I especially like this quote from Steve Jobs from that article:

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called the Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960s, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors and Polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions….

Stewart and his team put out several issues of the Whole Earth Catalog, and then, when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”. It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you. Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”

I would never have expected that I would submit as many proposals as I have to date. As of this writing, I have completed 93 challenge proposals, and I have won 22 of them. Those 93 challenge proposals, or ideas, total 2,205 pages, so the average is 20 - 25 pages, while one was 96 pages. A few years ago, I was sending in my ideas about once every 2-3 weeks. At my advanced age, I’ve slowed down some.

So, go on a long, slow walk, or a bike ride, and watch the clouds glow in a sunset, deep in the heart of Texas, or wherever you happen to hang your hat.

Extract from our book One Smart Crowd  - How crowdsourcing is changing the world one idea at a time. The book is available in Paperback or Kindle format here.

Topics: Solver Stories

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