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The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition -- June 17, 1998

'Honest, Mom, I Don't Even Know
What Those (@)#$%& Words Mean'


Computers are revolutionizing education, sometimes in surprising ways. Now there's software that can teach kids how to cuss like a drunken stevedore.

[Go]Secret Writer's Society Web site
The program, called "Secret Writer's Society," is meant to help seven to nine-year-olds learn to write by, among other things, reciting their compositions back to them in a computer-generated voice. But a strange bug sometimes causes the program to do some creative rewriting and vocalize streams of obscenities before reciting the child's own words.

One parent who tested the program for SuperKids, an educational-software review Web site (, describes the foul language as the sort heard in a "slasher flick." Another says "This goes way beyond George Carlin's seven banned words."

Kari Gibbs, a marketing manager for Matsushita Inc.'s Panasonic Interactive Media, which makes the product, acknowledges the cursing problem, but says it's very uncommon. "We've had two reports of it so far," she says. The bug only occurs on Macintoshes, she says, and only when a lot of the machine's memory is in use.

But Andrew Maisel, SuperKids editor in chief, counters that it doesn't take much to turn the program's language blue. He says that if a passage is longer than a few sentences and the mouse is double-clicked rather than single-clicked, the nastiness ensues. "It's got a very expressive vocabulary," he says. "I wouldn't want a 15-year-old exposed to some of the language this thing has."

Ms. Gibbs says the problem is caused by a bug in a filter that's supposed to prevent the software's text-to-speech engine from reciting foul language that users might put in their text. The bug causes the program to tap into the filter's archive of forbidden expressions and enunciate several concepts not found on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

"It's a bad thing if some child is sitting at the computer and all of a sudden it starts swearing at you," Ms. Gibbs concedes. When alerted by SuperKids, Panasonic promised to replace flawed copies of the program with debugged versions. But Mr. Maisel thinks the company should recall the product and publicize its flaws to protect kids where it might still be in use.

Ms. Gibbs says copies of the program that haven't been shipped "will be pulled," but that there's "no way to contact every person who's purchased it." Still, the company says it will set up an 800 number so that consumers with the flawed version can request a free, nonprofane replacement.

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