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spacer all reviews > > > writing software

Secret Writer's Society

Panasonic Interactive Media

Ages 7 to 9

Rating Scale
5 = great,    1 = poor
Educational Value
not rated
Kid Appeal
not rated
Ease of Use
not rated

Secret Writer's Society Screen Shot System Requirements

PC / Mac Price Survey

Product Support

SuperKids' review team thought that Secret Writer's Society looked like an interesting new program. They never dreamed how interesting it would turn out to be...

This program is designed to teach second and third-graders the basics of writing composition. Good things, like: capitalization, punctuation, topic sentences, paragraph structure, and editing. It has cute songs and nice animation. It even offers an effective text-to-speech capability. Unfortunately, this feature has a flaw so severe, that SuperKids warns parents against purchasing or using this program.

The Problem
Let us explain. Secret Writer's Society encourages young users to compose short passages. Once written, the user is supposed to click on a button labeled 'read,' to hear the computer read back the passage the child has written. This feature works fine, as long as the user (a) has written a very short passage, and (b) is not impatient. However, if the passage is a little long and the user impatiently double-clicks the read button, the program proceeds to rattle off a string of obscenities before correctly reading the passage!

Sample entry which generated a profanity-filled response
Sample entry which produced profanity-filled response

What do we mean by 'obscenities?' As the first parent reviewer to discover this wrote, "this goes way beyond George Carlin's seven banned words." Or as another parent noted, "it was quite unnerving to be sitting in front of the computer and suddenly have this mechanical voice swearing at me -- almost like something out of a slasher movie or something. It could really affect a child." We agree.

SuperKids contacted the publisher, Panasonic Interactive Media, and received three different responses over the course of the last week. First, there was a hesitant acknowledgement that this "problem would only occur in rare circumstances." We then contacted their Technical Support staff. After initially responding that she "had never heard of this problem," the tech support rep agreed to try and replicate the foul-mouthed behavior we had uncovered. After doing so, Tech Support agreed this was "a serious problem," and that they "would get back to us with a fix as soon as possible."

We finally spoke with a product manager, who explained the source of the problem, and Panasonic's response. The problem, we were told, was the result of a bug in a 'filter' which was supposed to prevent the text-to-speech engine of the program from speaking any obscene words that a user might include in a passage. Unfortunately, this bug causes the program to mistakenly volunteer obscenities.

The Solution
Panasonic promises to post a notice about this alarming bug on their website, and to offer to exchange the flawed CD with a 'new build.' When asked how a user could tell if their CD was a clean or 'dirty' one, Panasonic told us that there was no way to tell - "but if a user is concerned, they should contact Panasonic for a replacement."

SuperKids believes that's not enough. We believe Secret Writer's Society should be pulled from distribution until a relabeled replacement can be produced. In addition, we believe that Panasonic should publicize the flaw in this program, in an effort to notify parents and schools who have purchased the product, before their children discover this on their own.

We'll let you know what happens.

Update
One week after this story was published by SuperKids, follow-up stories were carried by The Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and others. Panasonic Interactive spokeswoman, Elizabeth Olson, contacted SuperKids to let us know that they would be offering a free replacement CD to purchasers who called a toll-free number (888) 726-2543, and that information about the problem would be posted on their website. It is, but not on the Secretwriter.com website. Instead, users should go to http://www.panakids.com for details.

SuperKids called the toll-free number and spoke with a very apologetic Panasonic representative, who took our name and promised to ship out a replacement CD "... as soon as they become available." We asked how long this might be, and were told "two weeks or so, because the product is on back-order."

Update II
We received our replacement copy of Secret Writer's Society in the mail, and checked it out. The good news is that the 'bug' has been fixed -- the program no longer breaks into profanity-laced speech when prodded with a double-click of the mouse. Unfortunately, the product packaging carries no indication that this is a revised version of the program. How can you tell which one you're looking at? The fixed CD itself is labeled 'Version 3.0.' We will publish a review of the new version in the near future.

Panasonic has also now added a notice to parents about the bug, to their www.secretwriter.com website.

We strongly encourage parents and teachers who own this program to check and make sure they have Version 3.0 or later. If not, they should contact Panasonic for a replacement.



System Requirements

PC: Win95, 486DX4/100 or faster cpu, 5 MB hard drive space, 8 MB RAM, SVGA 256 color display, 2X or faster CD-ROM, SoundBlaster compatible

Mac: System 7.1.1 or higher, 68040/40 or faster cpu, 5 MB hard drive space, 8 MB RAM, 256 color display, 2X or faster CD-ROM

Reviewed on:

  • PowerMac 6400/200 with 32MB and 8XCD
  • PowerMac 6100/60 with 16MB and 2XCD
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