'Honest, Mom, I Don't Even Know
By ROBERT CWIKLIK
What Those (@)#$%& Words Mean'
Staff Reporter of THE WALL
Computers are revolutionizing education,
sometimes in surprising ways. Now there's software that can teach kids
how to cuss like a drunken stevedore.
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.
Writer's Society Web site
One parent who tested the program for SuperKids, an educational-software
review Web site (www.superkids.com),
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.