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10 People Who Switched Careers After 50 (and Thrived!)

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Don't believe that old cliché about middle-aged dogs and new tricks. Lots of wildly successful people found big success in careers they began after their fiftieth birthdays. Here are just a few examples.

1. Colonel Sanders

Harland Sanders was no slouch as a young man, but he didn't become the string-tied chicken mogul we know and love until he was 65. "The Colonel" had a relatively successful restaurant and motel on U.S. 25 in Corbin, KY, but when Interstate 75 opened seven miles from Sanders' restaurant, his business begin to dwindle. Rather than go broke, he began to work on perfecting his spice blend and quick-cooking technique for making fried chicken in 1952. He then began touring the country selling Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, and by the time he sold the business for $2 million in 1964, there were over 900 of them.

2. Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series may be some of the world's most beloved children's books, but she was no spring chicken when she sat down to write them. Wilder didn't publish her first novel until she was 65 years old, and she still managed to crank out 12 books in her series, although some were published posthumously.

3 & 4. Tim and Nina Zagat

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The husband-and-wife team behind the popular dining surveys of the same name were corporate lawyers when they first started printing their restaurant guides. Eventually the guides became so popular that Tim left his job as corporate counsel for Gulf & Western to manage the business in 1986 when he was 51 years old. Nina eventually left the corporate law world to work on the dining surveys as well. In 2011, Google bought Zagat for $151 million.

5. Takichiro Mori

You don't have to start early to become the richest man in the world. Mori was an economics professor until he left academia at age 55 to become a real estate investor in 1959. Mori had recently inherited a couple of buildings from his father, and he jumped headfirst into Tokyo's real estate scene. Mori started his second career by investing in the Minato ward where he spent his childhood, and within a matter of years he was presiding over Japan's real estate boom.

When Mori died in 1993, he was Forbes' two-time reigning world's richest man with a net worth of around $13 billion. He was something of a Japanese precursor to Warren Buffett, though. Mori never seemed totally comfortable with the fame and fortune his second career won him. He dressed traditionally, abstained from alcohol, and lived a fairly modest life.

6. Grandma Moses

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Anna Mary Robertson Moses is one of the biggest names in American folk art, and she didn't even pick up a brush until she was well into her eighth decade. Grandma Moses was originally a big fan of embroidery, but once her arthritis grew too painful for her to hold a needle, she decided to give painting a try in the mid-1930s. She was 76 when she cranked out her first canvas, and she lived another 25 years as a painter—long enough to see the canvases she had sold for $3 fetch prices north of $10,000.

7. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

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The founder of the Hare Krishna movement was 69 years old before he started the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. In his native India, Prabhupada had been a chemist and a Sanskrit scholar in Calcutta, but in 1965 he came to New York City with just fifty bucks, a pair of cymbals, and a desire to spread the teachings of Lord Krishna.

Prabhupada got off to a modest start by sitting on a sidewalk in the East Village and chanting, but by the time of his death in 1977 his legions of followers were rumored to be thousands strong.

8. Edmond Hoyle

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Whether or not you know it, you probably owe Hoyle a tip of the cap each time you reach for a deck of cards. The Englishman is considered to be the world's first technical writer on the rules of card games, and he didn't put pen to paper as a young card sharp. Hoyle was around 70 years old when he first began recording the rules of various card games in 1741; over the last 27 years of his life, his smash hit A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist went through over a dozen editions.

9. Jack Cover

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You may not recognize Cover's name, but you've surely heard of his invention, the Taser. Cover spent most of his career as a nuclear physicist who worked in aerospace and defense, including playing a significant role in supplying parts for NASA's Apollo project. In 1970 the 50-year-old Cover started Taser, Inc. in an effort to find a weapon that could incapacitate assailants without killing them. He received a patent for his design in 1974, and by 1980 Cover had sold the Los Angeles Police Department on using his new gadget to help apprehend violent suspects. When Cover passed away in 2009 at the age of 88, his device was in use in over 45 countries around the world.

10. Ronald Reagan

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Sure, Reagan had been a famous actor, but he wasn't elected to his first public office until he was 55 years old. In 1966 Reagan won California's gubernatorial race by over a million votes. Prior to his election, Reagan had done some politicking as the president of the Screen Actors Guild and as spokesman for General Electric, but nothing on his resume made him look like a sure-fire two-term president. (And after a tennis tournament benefit for the Nancy Reagan Drug Abuse Fund in 1988, the Gipper got to meet a young Johnny Depp.)

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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