School officials confirm that Carnegie Mellon University has developed the world's first robot receptionist with a personality. According to the Associated Press, the university's computer science and drama departments collaborated to create Valerie, a socially skilled robot that engages people. She even gossips about her boss.

Perhaps now we've heard everything. "We wanted to give her an underdog character, struggling to make it in a world of humans," said one student who worked on the project. Hmm, parents from the drama and computer science departments. Nice call.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

The Wal-Mart Monster

By W.D. Crotty

Retail giant Wal-Mart's(NYSE: WMT) fourth-quarter and full-year results released this morning featured an 11% year-over-year jump in quarterly profits on a 12.2% gain in revenues. Sales and profits for the year were comparably higher. Those are fantastic results from a company the size of Wal-Mart.

Comparable same-store U.S. sales continued to trend higher. Sales at Wal-Mart stores increased 4.4%, only to be surpassed by a 6.7% comp gain at Sam's Club stores. International operations continued to boom. Sales for the quarter were up 17.3%, and profits rose 15.2%.

Every bit as importantly, a good bit of this growth flowed to the bottom line and right on over to the balance sheet. For the year, the company increased its net cash position by $2.4 billion.

On the earnings call, it was mentioned that January was a particularly strong month (and February is continuing this trend). It was also mentioned that apparel was marked down to get inventory in line for spring merchandise. Gross margins were better than forecast and increased for the ninth time in 10 quarters. Higher prices are not part of the formula, according to management, just getting a better product mix in front of the customer.

Wal-Mart's performance should frighten its peers both in supermarkets and broader retail. Safeway(NYSE: SWY), Albertson's(NYSE: ABS), and Kroger(NYSE: KR) all have narrower margins and would die for Wal-Mart's 26% increase in supermarket sales for the quarter. Supermarket sales at existing stores logged double-digit gains -- something not even its largest competitors can match.

Remarkably, Wal-Mart's operating margins nearly double those of Costco(Nasdaq: COST). Target(NYSE: TGT) does manage higher margins, but also has more debt, as reflected in a ratio of long-term debt to equity of 110% compared to 40% for Wal-Mart. Management also repurchased $5.2 billion in its own stock and added cash to the balance sheet.

All this shock and awe doesn't come cheap. At 29 times trailing earnings, Wal-Mart's execution is clearly reflected in the stock price. Still, with guidance calling for more double-digit earnings growth, retail investors can find value in Wal-Mart, especially given the paltry operating margins and lower growth exhibited by many of its peers.

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned. W.D. helps Wal-Mart with repeated trips to Sam's and the local Supercenter.

Shameless Plug: Motley Fool Visa Card

How would you like to earn 1% cash back on purchases you're going to make every day anyway? The Motley Visa Card not only offers such a reward, but it's also the best-looking card around. Take a look!

Another Brick in the Enron Wall

By Bill Mann (TMF Otter)

Last month, I expostulated that the plea bargain agreements of Enron's (OTC: ENRNQ) former CFO Andrew Fastow and Treasurer, his wife, Lea, were stepping stones in the quest to indict Ken Lay, who served as Chairman and CEO during most of the years that the massive frauds at the energy trader took place.

They haven't gotten to Ken Lay just yet, but apparently prosecutors were comfortable enough with the case against another Enron kingpin, Jeff Skilling. Skilling's been arrested and charged with more than three dozen counts related to the company's collapse. Skilling surrendered to authorities this morning in Houston and has pleaded not guilty on all counts. U.S. Magistrate Judge Francis Stacy set his bail at $5 million. Total potential penalty if Skilling is convicted on all counts would total 325 years and $80 million in fines. Ten of the counts deal with with improper insider trading, which netted Skilling more than $62 million in profits.

Skilling thus becomes the 28th former executive at Enron to be charged in the case. To date, he is the highest profile and highest-ranked executive to be charged -- now more than two years after the corporate scandal that destroyed more than $70 billion in shareholder equity and cost bondholders billions more.

Last month, Mr. Fastow agreed to a 10-year prison sentence in connection with his cooperation in helping make cases against other executives, including Skilling and the top prize, Lay. Both have maintained their innocence, stating that Fastow and others set up illegal schemes to hide billions in Enron debt without their knowledge. Fastow has now told investigators that he was hired specifically to do off-book financing and that his superior officers and directors praised the work he had done to make Enron look more financially successful than was actually the case.

And so unraveling the spectacular fraud at Enron grinds slowly forward, ideally honing in on gathering enough information to indict Lay. There are many victims of the Enron fraud who have grown quite impatient for this to happen. Prosecutors with whom I have spoken nearly universally describe just how difficult cases of individual culpability are to make in instances of corporate fraud. Just because we do not see the Enron executives behind bars at this moment doesn't mean that there isn't progress. Certainly, even with the indictment of Skilling today, it's not as fast as many of us would prefer.

Bill Mann owns none of the companies discussed in this article.

Discussion Board of the Day: The Wedding Chapel

Getting ready to tie the knot or know someone who is? Do you know who you should and should not invite? Want a clever bouquet toss idea? Have a horror story to share? All this and more -- in the The Wedding Chapel discussion board. Only on

Rambus: Risky No More?

By Dave Mock

Shares in silicon memory pioneer Rambus(Nasdaq: RMBS)once again jumped double digits yesterday to just shy of $35 per share, a gain of over 35% on the day. As the lead player in the hypergrowth cast of characters from the late 1990s, Rambus has survived and thrived to the glee of long-dedicated shareholders.

What moved the stock yesterday was the dismissal of an FTC antitrust case against the company. Government regulators had been scrutinizing Rambus for what competitors claimed were sneaky business practices. Rambus allegedly manipulated standards-setting processes in the memory market in order to lock in its proprietary designs and later demand royalty from them.

While the full report is not due until Monday, the statement makes it clear that the government didn't buy these assertions. True, the decision by the single judge is still open to review by the full FTC commission and the case could end up in appeals. However, this early indication from the FTC that the evidence did not merit a case in the first place lends a big boost to Rambus' credibility on the legal front.

So, has Rambus now truly crossed the bridge into legal legitimacy, where investors can more properly value the business without the huge risk of litigation overhanging? I believe so. Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that the risk level on the stock is down. Investing in the company is still far from a no-brainer -- it continues to carry a high valuation and is open to extreme volatility with other ongoing litigation. But going forward, Rambus will be easier to assess as the business matures and the impact of various lawsuits diminishes.

Recent historical precedence with peers such as ARM Holdings(Nasdaq: ARMHY), InterDigital Communications(Nasdaq: IDCC), and Qualcomm(Nasdaq: QCOM) shows that turbulence in the early years gives way to stable business models as the industry and market mature. While investors may think the big money has already been made, the future still holds potential surprises for a savvy buyer who doesn't overpay.

Still, a decision for placing your own hard-earned cash into Rambus shares should be based upon more than the average level of research. Companies that derive substantial revenue from licensing intellectual property and royalties encompass very complex business dynamics. This added twist can make the task more difficult, but also more rewarding.

If you've been a follower of Rambus on for even a short time, there's obviously nothing new for you here -- move along! But if the company is now catching your eye and you want to learn more, the Rambus discussion board is the best place to get schooled, bar none.

Motley Fool contributor Dave Mock does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.

Quote of Note

"Never mistake motion for action." -- Ernest Hemingway

More on Today

The tax man cometh, and you don't want to be pick-pocketed, do you? Luckily, Selena Maranjian's got 10 Tax Tips.... The New Year may have come and gone, but the fiscal one is approaching fast. Philip Durell's got an annual list of the worst stocks around that paid off big time in Pigs of the Dow.... And don't forget the third installment of Dave and Tom Gardner's interview with's irreverent CEO Patrick Byrne. This man's got punch. But don't take our word for it. Check out Overstock Rates the Competition.

In other news:

For a list of all our stories from today, see our Today's Headlines page.