If you've ever read media reports about a topic you're very familiar with, such as your company or even yourself, you've probably noticed that very often the reporter got something wrong. Or a lot of things wrong. Or at least missed some important details. As someone who writes for a living, I must confess that my own writing often has room for improvement.
I know this because thanks to the interactive nature of Fooldom I hear from readers all the time. Sometimes they praise an article I've penned, and sometimes they express disappointment -- such as in an email I received with the subject heading, "You're a ridiculous person." (More alarming, it was from someone named Jesus.)
I love hearing from readers because (a) who doesn't enjoy receiving kind words; (b) even if the writer is disputing what I've written, I'm likely to learn something or at least be presented with some food for thought; and (c) some comments are just funny.
Here is a recap of things I've learned recently.
Deer heads and LEGO
Awhile back, I wrote about waste in government spending and noted that a mounted deer head and LEGO building blocks had been bought with taxpayer money. From readers, I learned that:
- "Your picture [the one we promoted the article with] is an elk head, not a deer head, but your story about foolish spending is well taken." [Oops.]
- "You might be surprised to find that most people know that museums, especially natural history museums, are full of taxidermy. Why would the public be surprised that tax dollars were spent on taxidermy?"
- "LEGO actually produces (or use to produce) a robotics line of products, based on the robotics language and tool set developed by MIT. It is absolutely the cheapest way to learn robotics. On this one point you are WAY off base.. This product line -- labeled as a toy -- was actually well beyond being a toy -- and is actually used in the MIT Robotics Lab to teach robotics. When LEGO came out with this particular line of toys, they were hailed as being great innovators in this area. In my opinion, rather than castigating the poor Navy engineer and manager who approved the purchase, I would hold them up as examples of wise money management."
In an article on when to sell stocks and funds, I suggested that some readers may have bought a holding simply because "you just thought the ticker symbol was cute." I cited as examples Southwest Airlines
Cigarette profits at risk
I wrote in June about the danger a drop-off in teen smoking may represent for tobacco concerns and suggested that investors seeking the fat dividend yields offered by several tobacco companies might take advantage of a free trial of our Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter for promising alternative investments. Readers wrote in to tell me:
"I just would like to just once see a balanced report on the tobacco stocks. In case you haven't been around since the late 1960s, the adult population in the U.S. had about 40% smokers 35 years ago. Now it is about 24%. [During this period] Philip Morris (now Altria
"In your [article] you conveniently excluded from your list of 'those who profit from tobacco' entities such as state and federal governments which, in aggregate, profit more from tobacco than the actual tobacco companies do. I wonder how they will replace all of that lost revenue as their citizens kick the habit."
"You make it seem as if the tobacco companies only depend on the U.S. Most growth is not in the U.S. anyway, but outside. and as an investor in Altria, I am confident that people will smoke more (not less) in developing countries. So maybe you should have added that to the equation.."
Investing outside the box
I wrote about how investors can often find compelling investments on the sidelines of major trends, and a reader wrote in: "The example I always think of is Levi's. While the thousands of '49ers rushed to California to find gold rarely found enough to make their effort worthwhile, those who got rich were the suppliers, such as clothing maker Levi, or those selling eggs at a dollar apiece. I think Levi's is still the biggest, or one of the biggest, clothing companies in the world." (Levi's is not a tiny company, but it's been struggling lately. In January I reported on its closing its last two U.S.-based plants.)
R&D in software
After I wrote about Microsoft's
"Production, which is a big cost for durable goods companies, is a very minor part of the software business. The Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) for a download is about zero, and COGS is no more than about $10 for very expensive products (since they often don't ship large manuals anymore, which were the single-most expensive piece of the physical 'product.') So that makes R&D a much higher proportion of costs. If you looked at other software companies, like Oracle
That's an excellent point. We should always think carefully when comparing. If you're comparing brokerages (as you should), for example, don't just assume that the lowest commissions are best. If you trade large sums infrequently, commissions won't matter that much, and other factors may be much more important to you, such as mutual funds offered or the existence of a local branch office.
In response to an article on what supermarket cashiers would like to say to customers, a reader wrote in: "The best question I've ever heard a cashier ask of a customer. Most of my fellow Wal-Mart
Coffins vs. caskets
After I wrote about the Chinese competing with U.S. coffin makers, I learned that, "Technically speaking, a casket is what we usually see people buried in these days in the Western world. A coffin is the container that is wider for the shoulders and tapers toward the head and feet in width. (Look at old Billy the Kid movies.)"
I could go on (and perhaps one day I will), but I'll stop here for now. I hope you found these responses as interesting as I did. Now you can stop yourself before blurting out at a funeral, "My, what a lovely coffin!"
In the meantime, be sure to share your thoughts with Fool writers whenever you're so inspired, ideally on our discussion boards, so that thousands of others can share in the exchange. (We're offering a painless free trial of our boards right now.)
Selena Maranjian loves to check her mail. For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. She owns shares of Wal-Mart and Microsoft. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.