Mar 19

Prophecies: the Web

Arthur C. Clarke has died in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. To commemorate Sir Arthur’s passing, I’d like to highlight yet another of his predictions that has come true: the World Wide Web.

In his 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Clarke describes a device called the home communications console, or Comsole for short. Its elements are quite familiar: “the blank gray screen, the alphanumeric keyboard, the camera lens and speaker grille.” But what does it do? In a diary entry, main character Duncan Makenzie describes how his daily routine begins with the Comsole: “I dial the Comsole for any messages that have arrived during the night — usually there are half a dozen. . . . Then I set the news abstractor to print out anything that’s happened in my area of interest, and scan the result.”

But that’s just a small part of the Comsole’s capabilities. A later passage provides an overview:

Duncan walked to the Comsole, and the screen became alive as his finger brushed the ON pad. Now it was a miracle beyond the dreams of any poet, a charmed magic casement, opening on all seas, all lands. Through this window could flow everything that Man had ever learned about his universe, and every work of art he had saved from the dominion of Time. All the libraries and museums that had ever existed could be funneled through this screen and the millions like it scattered over the face of Earth. Even the least sensitive of men could be overwhelmed by the thought that one could operate a Comsole for a thousand lifetimes — and barely sample the knowledge stored within the memory banks that lay triplicated in their widely separated caverns, more securely guarded than any gold.

On this particular occasion, Duncan is merely trying to locate an old friend who is somewhere on Earth, so he uses the online directory to look up her contact information and then uses the Comsole to call her and have a sound-and-video conversation.

We take all of this for granted today, but when I first read Imperial Earth 32 years ago, the first home computers — the kind you had to build from a kit — had just come on the market. The idea that personal computers would connect to a global information network and provide instant audiovisual access to everything and everyone was stunning, and utterly beyond anything I had previously read. Clarke even predicted when it would happen: “The home communications console — or Comsole — had reached its technological plateau in the early twenty-first century.” We haven’t reached that plateau yet, but the Web is only a little more than a decade old, and almost all of what Clarke described is already available.

Imperial Earth begins with an incident from Duncan Makenzie’s youth, as a ten-year-old living in an underground city on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Attempting to use his Comsole to call his grandmother, he enters the wrong number and ends up connecting to something else:

There was no ringing tone, and no picture. . . . Duncan guessed that he had been switched into an audio-only channel, or had reached a station where the camera was disconnected. In any case, this certainly wasn’t Grandma’s number, and he reached to break the connection.
Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. . . . He was listening to the voice of the wind, as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head. . . .
Somewhere — perhaps in an abandoned construction project or experimental station — a live microphone had been left in circuit, exposed to the freezing, poisonous winds of the world above. It was not likely to remain undetected for long; sooner or later it would be discovered and disconnected.

When I read those words in 1976, the idea of using a computer terminal connected to a global information network to listen to the sounds of wind in the atmosphere of Titan was pure science fiction. But less than thirty years later, I did exactly that. Sir Arthur was right on the money.

Mar 13

Photo shoot

One of the things I like about community theatre is that it offers me opportunities to do things I’ve never done before — to push the outside of the envelope, you might say. Today was certainly no exception. Before leaving home, I shaved off my beard, and then shaved the upper part of my chest. Next, I drove to the theatre, where I put on a dress and started applying lipstick and mascara.

Perhaps I should back up and explain. Today’s experience was a photo shoot for the cover of a local magazine, part of the publicity for Radio Gals, the final show of the 2007-2008 season. Here’s the description from the RLT website:

Musical. From the creators of Pump Boys and Dinettes comes a lively, nostalgia-dipped musical, with old-time musical numbers and country humor. It is a warm spring day in 1928. From her parlor in Cedar Ridge, Arkansas, Hazel Hunt broadcasts her own radio station: a daily fare of inspirational and popular tunes, gossip, funnies, recipes, classified ads, sports scores, and fan mail from her mailbag. However, due to Hazel’s habit of “channel wandering,” her broadcasts are not always so local, to which listeners as far away as Montreal can testify. Enter O. B. Abbott, Federal Radio Inspector, intent on rescuing the airwaves from Hazel, claiming that workmen have been receiving the WGAL radio signal in a tunnel under the Hudson River, and accusing Hazel of being a “gypsy of the ether!”

But auditions for Radio Gals haven’t been held yet. The costumes and sets don’t yet exist (everyone is still busy putting together Peter Pan). How do you photograph characters who haven’t been cast, wearing costumes that haven’t been made, on a set that hasn’t been built?

You cheat, of course. First of all, you don’t need the whole cast; you can just photograph a couple of the characters. And in this case, even though auditions haven’t been started, we do know who will play one of the following two characters (as described in the casting call):

AZILEE SWINDLE: Elderly, well-dressed lady. Friend and associate of Hazel’s. (Usually played by a male–Voice midrange — instrument: preferably bass)
MABEL SWINDLE: Elderly, well-dressed lady. Friend and associate of Hazel’s. (Will be played by Brent Wilson, the Musical Director–voice midrange, plays piano.)

So you just have to find someone to be Azilee, and dress him and Brent in existing costumes from RLT’s inventory. You locate an actual living room with a decor that looks right for the 1920s, and you shoot the pictures there.

Actress Denise Michelle Penven-Crew volunteered her living room, so all that was needed was a man who would agree to put on a dress and pose with Brent. But who? At one point, RLT’s Technical Director, Jim Zervas, thought he would have to do it — but he really needed to spend the time working on the Peter Pan sets. So, when I crossed paths with him after rehearsal two nights ago, he said, “Hey, Pat, I need a favor.”

The next thing I knew, I was down in the costume shop trying on a dress. Fortunately, I was able to fit into the black and pink dress that Jo Brown wore in You Can’t Take It With You as Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (on the left in this photo) back in 2004. We also found a suitable wig. Obviously my beard would have to go, and I would need to eliminate any chest hair that might be visible above the V-shaped neckline.

Now you know why I was in a dressing room at RLT today, wearing a dress and applying makeup. Costume Designer Jenny found a shawl, a couple of necklaces, and a pair of earrings to complete my ensemble. Brent was already dressed, made up, and ready to go. The two of us rode across town to Denise’s house with photographer Stuart and Office Manager Wayne.

We were surprised to find a utility crew digging up the street in front of the house, installing or replacing some buried pipes. There were about half a dozen men wearing orange vests and hardhats, and Brent and I walked right past them in our dresses, wigs, and makeup to get to Denise’s front door. They didn’t give us even one whistle or catcall! I was devastated.

Inside the house, Stuart and Wayne set up the lights. Brent and I posed with some prop microphones and musical instruments while Stuart snapped the pictures. After that, it was back to RLT, where I changed into my own clothes and scrubbed off the makeup.

And that’s why, in a few weeks, I will be appearing on a magazine cover in drag — dressed as a character that I won’t be playing in a show that I am not in. I’m afraid that theatre historians in the future will be terribly confused when they find these photos in the RLT archives. But imagine my confusion if, while I was working on the props crew for You Can’t Take It With You, a visitor from my future had appeared, pointed at Jo Brown, and said, “Take a good look at that dress. In a few years, you’re going to be wearing it.”

In any event, I can now update my resume to show that I have experience as both an actor and a model. In fact, considering where one of today’s pictures will end up, I believe I can truthfully say that I was a cover girl.

Mar 11

Getting scoped

Dave Barry doesn’t write a weekly column anymore, but he occasionally still does special articles for the Miami Herald. His latest, published a couple of weeks ago, is about how he finally had a colonoscopy after years of procrastinating.
My mother’s family has a history of colon cancer, so procrastination was never an option for me. I didn’t even wait for my 50th birthday — with my doctor’s encouragement, I went ahead and scheduled a colonoscopy when I was 44. My experience was similar to Barry’s: it was no big deal, since the actual procedure took place while I was unconscious. (At least I think so, although the anaesthetic they used also causes short-term memory loss. So it’s possible that I was aware of being scoped, but then forgot the whole thing. That’s pretty much the same thing, as far as I’m concerned.)
One difference is that I didn’t have to drink two liters of MoviPrep. My gastroenterologist prescribed a different laxative (probably Picolax or something like it) that requires considerably smaller doses. And it didn’t taste bad at all. I also found the effect to be much more gentle than what Barry describes, although the result was the same.
Like Barry, I was found to be cancer-free. And he’s certainly right in saying that it’s better to know that. The idea of having a colonoscopy certificate signed by Dave Barry appeals to me, so I’m going to take advantage of his Exclusive Limited Time Offer. If you’re over 50 or have a family history of colon cancer, you should too.
My gastroenterologist said to have another colonoscopy done after five years. That was in 2004, so I’ll need to do it again next year. As I said before, no big deal.

Mar 05

Tributes to Gary

Wizards of the Coast posted this notice on the front page of its D&D website yesterday:

ERNEST GARY GYGAX
JULY 27, 1938 – MARCH 4, 2008

Today, Wizards of the Coast was deeply saddened to learn that Gary Gygax passed away in his home at age 69. Gygax was a co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons game. His innovation created an entirely new type of hobby that now attracts millions of players worldwide to face-to-face and online roleplaying games. Gygax was a grand storyteller renowned for his unique style, sprawling “Gygaxian” adventures, and the fantastic World of Greyhawk. He inspired generations of players, designers, and authors, and he will be sorely missed by legions of fans. We extend our sincerest condolences to his family and friends.

Aaron Williams departed from the normal schedule for his Full Frontal Nerdity webcomic in order to post a special strip and a written tribute. John Kovalic did likewise in today’s Dork Tower cartoon. The mainstream news media covered Gygax’s passing (Ruth reports hearing a story about it on All Things Considered) and the leading geek sites (Wired, Ars Technica, CNet, GameSpy) all posted sentimental eulogies. Everyone seems to have a story about how the man and his game gave them uncountable hours of joy and adventure as they grew up.

In a 2004 interview, Gygax said, “I would like the world to remember me as the guy who really enjoyed playing games and sharing his knowledge and his fun pastimes with everybody else.” I don’t think there’s any question about it: his wish has been granted.

I think the best Gygax tribute of all is an eight-year-old episode of Futurama in which he appears (alongside Nichelle Nichols and Stephen Hawking) as a member of Al Gore’s Vice Presidential Action Rangers, charged with protecting the space-time continuum.

Sometime in the fall of this year, I will have been playing D&D for thirty years. Except that I don’t really play it anymore. Everyone in my gaming group is very busy, myself included, and in recent months finding a time when we’re all available has become virtually impossible. Thinking about this a few days ago, I found myself wondering if it wasn’t time to accept the fact that D&D was a thing of the past for me. Nothing lasts forever, and perhaps this part of my life was finally over.

Well, I’m not gonna do that. Not now. Not when Gary Gygax isn’t even cold yet. Not with the 4th Edition about to arrive in stores, and my 30-year anniversary as a D&D player mere months in the future. Hell, no! I refuse to just let it slip away. Somehow, somewhere, I will play this game again. And today, just to prove to myself that I’m still a D&D player, I’m going to buy some new dice.

UPDATE: The 4th Edition of D&D will be dedicated to Gygax.

More tributes: Penny Arcade, The Order of the Stick (comic, blog), Salon, Wil Wheaton, Steve Jackson, XKCD, New York Times

Mar 04

The Dungeon Master departs

E. Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and father of the role-playing game, has died.
Farewell and Godspeed, Gary. You may be gone, but the game you helped create is alive and well, with the Fourth Edition almost ready for launch. And that’s as good a legacy as anyone could ask for.

Feb 29

What you need to know about D&D

If you’re wondering how D&D 4th Edition is coming along, there have been some interesting news items on the Wizards of the Coast D&D website. A recent editorial in the online version of Dragon Magazine (yes, it still exists!) said “4th Edition is close on the horizon — and fast approaching.” A February 13 news item on the website was a bit more specific:

For the next several weeks, you’ll be seeing fewer 4th Edition Design and Development columns than normal. This is because the writers, all of whom are members of the R&D staff, are busy finalizing the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. As a result, we’re scaling back the number of online articles. Once the three core rulebooks are off to the printer, we’ll get the R&D staffers back on their regular schedule.

WotC is running a convention-like event called D&D Experience in Arlington, VA this weekend, featuring the first public 4E games (and a seminar at which WotC’s 4E plans for the whole year will be laid out). A two-page handout titled “What You Need to Know About D&D” (but informally referred to as the Quick Rules Primer) was prepared for this event, and WotC has made it available for download in PDF format. It contains some intriguing information about what’s different in the new edition. Here are the section titles:

  1. Character roles are more clearly defined.
  2. Powers give you more combat options.
  3. Attacker rolls against a static defense.
  4. Standard, move, and minor actions.
  5. Healing gets an overhaul.
  6. Short and extended rests.
  7. Attack!
  8. Action points give you an extra action.
  9. Movement is quick and easy.
  10. Saving throws are straightforward.
  11. Durations are easy to manage.
  12. Reach (usually) isn’t as threatening.
  13. A trio of “c” rules you might want to know. (These are Combat Advantage, Cover, and Charging.)

This is going to be a very interesting year for D&D.

Feb 18

Oogenesis

In the latest Dork Tower strip, the characters tackle one of the classic stupid questions: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Why do I call it a stupid question? Because it is. Fish, amphibians, and reptiles were laying eggs for millions of years before the first bird appeared on Earth. Obviously, the egg came before the chicken. I don’t understand why anyone thinks this question is remotely challenging.

Okay, actually, I do. Generally, when people treat this as an insoluble conundrum, their unspoken assumption is that “egg” really means “chicken egg”. So eggs laid by fish and reptiles are excluded. I see no reason to limit the question that way, but fine. Even if we accept that interpretation, answering the question is no problem. It becomes a simple matter of definition. Here’s how I would handle it:

SILLY PERSON: Which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?
ME: Define “chicken egg.”
SP: An egg that a chicken hatches out of.
ME: Okay, by that definition, the very first chicken hatched from a chicken egg. So the egg came first.
SP: No, wait! A chicken egg is an egg laid by a chicken.
ME: All right, then the chicken came first. Obviously.
SP: But —
ME: I think we’re done here. Why don’t you take this amusing quiz?

Feb 05

Prophecies: long distance

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

The coming of the jet age had triggered an explosion of global tourism. At almost the same time — it was not, of course, a coincidence — satellites and fiber optics had revolutionized communications. With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.

Clarke made that prediction in 1987. While it hasn’t come true in a literal sense, I think he’s not far off the mark. It’s been years since the last time I paid for a long-distance (LD) phone call. My family’s mobile phone plan provides us with an ample pool of minutes. And it doesn’t cost us anything extra to use them for LD calls. So we make all of our LD calls on our mobile phones, and we’ve come to think of LD telephony as free.

Do we even need an LD carrier? Well, not under normal circumstances. But the cellular phone networks can become unavailable as a result of either excessive demand or power failure. The most likely scenario for either of those events is a disaster of some sort; New York City experienced cellular network collapse on 11 September 2001, and again during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Unfortunately, it’s in exactly that sort of situation that you most want to place LD phone calls.

So it’s prudent to have a backup plan for doing so. But it’s silly to pay a monthly fee for an LD plan that you hope never to use. A few years ago, I called MCI (our LD carrier) to find out what could be done about that. The customer service representative offered to switch us to a plan that had no minimum fee, and I agreed.

Yesterday, I received a card from MCI informing me of a new monthly minimum. Beginning March 1, we would have to pay a $5.99 per month even if we made no LD calls at all. It was time to cancel. At first I had difficulty reaching a live human at MCI, but after ten or fifteen minutes of listening to elevator music, I remembered the gethuman 500 database that I wrote about a few months ago. Following the instructions on that site, I reached a customer service representative in a couple of minutes. After verifying that it was no longer possible to avoid the monthly minumum fees, I canceled our account.

I assumed that our LD backup plan would now be to use a 10-10 dial-around service if the need arose. But when I started to research the available dial-around services, I learned that there are still some LD carriers that have little or no monthly minimum. The best of these seems to be ECG, which offers an interstate rate of 2.5 cents per minute (much better than the 7 cents per minute I didn’t pay MCI for the calls I wasn’t making). I signed up.

ECG does charge a “regulatory recovery fee” of 59 cents per month. That’s not quite the free LD that Clarke predicted, but I think I can live with it.

Jan 28

Soviet space disasters

In the midst of delving into the history of Soviet space disasters, I just noticed today’s date. It’s the 22nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

This NASA description of an unmanned launch matches Heinlein’s account almost perfectly. It seems clear that his guide was actually telling him the truth in this instance. It really was a dummy, not a cosmonaut, and the cadets were mistaken.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned about several other incidents that I’ve never heard of before. This is from the “Dead Cosmonauts” chapter of James Oberg’s book Uncovering Soviet Disasters:

On April 5, 1975, two cosmonauts were dumped onto the Altai Mountains in the world’s first manned space launch abort. Pilot Vasily Lazarev and flight engineer Oleg Makarov survived a harrowing 20 G descent and then a bouncing ride down a mountainside before their spacecraft came to a safe stop. They came as close to dying as anyone can and later talk about it. Privately Soviet engineers told American colleagues that explosive separation bolts between the second and third stages had been miswired. For many years the Soviet public was left in the dark about these details.

Oberg also describes what sounds like the Soviet version of Apollo 13:

In the second article flight director Viktor Blagov gave a detailed account of the suspenseful Soyuz 33 mission in the spring of 1979, when a two-man spaceship was nearly stranded in orbit. The spaceship’s main engine exploded, and specialists feared that it had damaged the emergency engine as well.

And I can’t believe I’ve never hear about this terrifying episode:

Several dramatic space events never got mentioned in this period — the most dangerous being the Soyuz-5 landing in 1969 when the service module failed to detach from the command module, which then entered front forward and began burning up. Only at the last possible moment did the modules separate and the heat shield turn into the 10,000 degree heat pulse.

Oberg wrote two books on this subject. I’m going to have to get my hands on them.

Jan 27

Lost cosmonauts?

Following a tip from Instapundit, I was shocked to read a disturbing revelation about the early history of space flight: Yuri Gagarin was not the first human to fly in space. This claim was apparently published at Pravda Online back in 2001, but I’ve never heard about it before today. The article is very brief, so I will quote the whole thing here:

As 40 years have passed since Gagarin’s flight, new sensational details of this event were disclosed: Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin’s famous space flight, Mikhail Rudenko, senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456 (located in Khimki, in the Moscow region) said on Thursday. According to Rudenko, spacecraft with pilots Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov at the controls were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome (in the Astrakhan region) in 1957, 1958 and 1959. “All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published,” Rudenko said. He explained that all these pilots took part in so-called sub- orbital flights, i.e., their goal was not to orbit around the earth, which Gagarin later did, but make a parabola-shaped flight. “The cosmonauts were to reach space heights in the highest point of such an orbit and then return to the Earth,” Rudenko said. According to his information, Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were regular test pilots, who had not had any special training, Interfax reports. “Obviously, after such a serious of tragic launches, the project managers decided to cardinally change the program and approach the training of cosmonauts much more seriously in order to create a cosmonaut detachment,” Rudenko said.

My immediate reaction to this was “My God, Robert Heinlein was right!”
You probably have no idea what I’m talking about unless you’ve read an essay that Heinlein wrote after his visit to the USSR in 1960. The essay is titled “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, and it is reprinted (along with “Inside Intourist”, another essay on the same topic) in the Heinlein collection Expanded Universe.

The title “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'” refers to the Russian word pravda, which is literally translated as “truth”, but in the Soviet Union really meant “what the Communist Party says is true”. Because she and her husband wanted to learn the truth, not the pravda, about life in the USSR, Virginia Heinlein spent two years learning Russian. She took classes at the University of Colorado, hired a private conversation tutor, and listened to language instruction records until, in Robert’s words, “she could read Russian, write Russian, speak Russian, understand Russian — and think in Russian.”

As a result, the Heinleins knew that they would not be dependent on their tour guides (employees of Intourist, the official state travel agency) for information. They would know what people around them were really saying, not what the tour guides claimed they were saying. And if they managed to slip away from their keepers, they might be able to talk to ordinary citizens of the USSR and learn things about life in that country that the tour guides would never tell them. This was risky behavior in 1960, but Robert and Virginia wanted to know the facts about the Soviet Union, not a Potemkin village version.
In “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, Heinlein describes an incident that occurred while they were visiting Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania (which was then known by its Russian name, Vilno).

About noon on Sunday, May 15, we were walking downhill through the park surrounding the castle that dominates Vilno. We encountered a group of six or eight Red Army cadets. Foreigners are a great curiosity in Vilno. Almost no tourists go there. So they stopped and we chatted, myself through our guide and my wife directly, in Russian.

Shortly one of the cadets asked me what I thought of their new manned rocket. We answered that we had had no news lately — what was it and when did it happen? He told us, with the other cadets listening and agreeing, that the rocket had gone up that very day, and at that very moment a Russian astronaut was in orbit around the earth — and what did we think of that?

I congratulated them on this wondrous achievement but, privately, felt a dull sickness. The Soviet Union had beaten us to the punch again. But later that day our guide looked us up and carefully corrected the story: The cadet had been mistaken, the rocket was not manned.

That evening we tried to purchase Pravda. No copies were available in Vilno. Later we heard from other Americans that Pravda was not available in other cities in the USSR that evening — this part is hearsay, of course. We tried also to listen to the Voice of America. It was jammed. We listened to some Soviet stations but heard no mention of the rocket.

This is the rocket the Soviets tried to recover and later admitted that they had had some trouble with the retrojets; they had fired while the rocket was in the wrong attitude.

So what is the answer? Did that rocket contain only a dummy, as the pravda now claims? Or is there a dead Russian revolving in space? — an Orwellian “unperson,” once it was realized that he could not be recovered.
I am sure of this: At noon on May 15 a group of Red Army cadets were unanimously positive that the rocket was manned. That pravda did not change until later that afternoon.

You can see why I reacted to the 2001 Pravda Online article by thinking that Heinlein’s anecdote had been confirmed. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the dates don’t match. The Heinleins met those Red Army cadets on May 15, 1960. That’s almost a year before Gagarin’s flight, but too late to be any of the suborbital launches described by Pravda Online (which allegedly took place in 1957, 1958, and 1959). And the cadets described an orbital flight.

I have trouble believing the Pravda Online story, especially the claim of a manned launch in 1957. The USSR didn’t even launch Sputnik I until October of that year, and that was a metal sphere a mere 28 inches in diameter. It did weigh as much as a man (183 pounds), but not nearly as much as a spacecraft capable of carrying a man, keeping him alive, and returning him safely to Earth. The Soviets simply didn’t have the ability to loft anything that massive into space, even on a suborbital trajectory, in 1957.

And who is this Mikhail Rudenko that Pravda Online cites as a source? The 2001 article says he is (or was) “senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office”. I’ve never heard of him or the Experimental Design Office before. How does he know about these alleged flights? Does he have any government documents or other evidence to back up his story, or are we just supposed to take his word for it? If these launches really took place, many other people must have been involved. I’d like to see some of them corroborate Rudenko’s claim.

It turns out that Pravda Online has no actual connection to the newspaper that Robert Heinlein couldn’t find in Vilnius. The original Pravda was closed in 1991 by President Yeltsin, and Pravda Online is an unrelated Web site run by some former Pravda staff members. Judging by the other content at that site, it’s the equivalent of a supermarket tabloid in the U.S. And as far as I can tell, the information in the 2001 article hasn’t been published anywhere else. That doesn’t inspire very much confidence.

The whole topic of whether the USSR had unsuccessful manned space flights before Gagarin’s (and hushed them up) is a swamp of legends, hoaxes, and outright lies. Wikipedia has an article on the subject that lists about two dozen “lost cosmonauts”, including the three listed in the Pravda Online article and Heinlein’s 1960 account. Most of the lost-cosmonaut claims are rumors with little or no supporting evidence.

Who knows if any of it is true? I can easily believe that the Soviet space program had early failures, some of them fatal, that were never publicized. But any specific claims of that sort will have to be documented better that the ones we’ve seen so far.