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Interview with Harlan Ellison

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Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is the author of over 1700 short stories, essays, articles, and newspaper columns; two dozen teleplays, a dozen motion pictures, and 75 books. He has eight (and a half) Hugo Awards, six Bram Stoker awards, two Edgar Allen Poe awards, two George Mélès Fantasy Awards, two Audie Awards, and the Silver Pen for Journalism. His works have been translated into over 40 languages, and he's considered one of the most influential writers in the science fiction genre of the modern era. At 79 years old, he continues to write and publish across many mediums and genres. He is the writer and driving force behind "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream."

We recently had the honor of interviewing Ellison by phone about the process of transforming the original short story into one of the most devious and powerful adventure games ever devised. As a note, this interview contains spoilers for the game and the short story. If you are intent on experiencing both with a fresh mind, we suggest waiting until you've completed them before reading.

HARLAN ELLISON: This is Harlan Ellison. Today is the 10th of September, 2013. I'm speaking to you from inside my home, the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, overlooking 200 acres of watershed land. I'm being interviewed by... NIGHT DIVE: Jensen Toperzer, writing for Night Dive Studios. ELLISON: Good, let us get to it. NIGHT DIVE: Our first question is this: while you're not the last writer we'd expect to be involved in the creation of a game, you're near the bottom of the list. You've stated many times before that you're not interested in video games. This being the case, how did you get involved in the project in the first place? ELLISON: I'm not a fan of the use of technology for video games. I think that they're pretty much time wasters, and that they're so popular is in a small way dismaying to me. They've supplanted film, and books, and theater, and even radio to an extent that entire generations now grow up able to manipulate their thumbs, but not much else. Every time I see a kid walking down a street playing a video game and he's about to be hit by a moving van, I take a quiet pleasure in that. And you go to a restaurant and there's a dad who gets his kid on the weekends, and the father is sitting there with a video phone and the kid is sitting there with a video game, and you wonder, whatever happened to human contact? To interaction? But I'm multifarious, I like dabbling in all manner of mediums. I've done books, movies, television, essays, autobiographies, collections, radio shows, I've done live radio, I've done many sound recordings, I've been a Grammy Finalist twice... it became inevitable that at one point, a video game company came to me and said, "We'd like to take the rights to your story, 'I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," and they offered me quite a lot of money, and they said, "We'll make you a millionaire." Well, they all say that. I'm willing to give people a chance. "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" is a particular story. I am told by academics that it is one of the ten most reprinted stories in the English language, up there with Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," O. Henry's "The Gift of the AMMagi," and that's pretty rarefied territory. I've been reluctant to option out "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" for any subsidiary uses: theme rides, plays, movies... I've held it fairly close, waiting for the right offer. This was, what, six, eight... ten? Eighteen? Eighteen years ago. A company called Cyberdreams came to me with great bloviating promises of making me the king of video games. I said fine. They said, "We'll hire The Dreamer's Guild to construct this game." I said, that's fine, because I know nothing about games. I'm happily 20th century. I use a Dell laptop that I think was made in Phoenicia. It's got a trademark of 611 BCE on it. I know very little about electronics, so I said, "If you have someone come in who is tech equipped, to do the actual nuts and bolts of this, I will sit beside them with my manual typewriter." I use only Olympia manual typewriters, office machines, and portables, and I will sit beside them here in the Art Deco dining pavilion at my Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, and I will create the story. When we come to a place where there's a technical glitch, or a technical necessity, the wizard, the Dreamers Guild guy, will explain to me what it is that needs to be done, and I will interpret it in storytelling terms. NIGHT DIVE: In the original short story, we know very little about who the characters are. In the game, however, the characters each have complex backstories which must be discovered through gameplay. Can you describe how you went about developing their different personalities and backstories? ELLISON: I'll give you a for-instance. At one point in the game, a man, Gorrister, finds himself in a roadside diner. Gorrister had in, his backstory, which I wrote... I wrote backstories for all of the characters, which was published in the strategy guide, about twenty pages. They didn't bother to mention that I'd written all of those biographies. The book was published by a man named Mel Oddum. He did a very good job of it, it leads you through the game, tells you how to get out of certain scrapes, how to escape from certain situations... I wrote an introduction for the book, and I wrote long biographies for each of the characters. But when they ran the book, they omitted my byline, so everybody thought Mel Oddum had written them, but I wrote them. I was very assiduous about filling in psychiatric profiles, backstories, and histories of each of the characters, so they weren't just point-and-click figures. At one point, Gorrister goes into, not the men's room of this restaurant or diner or roadside whatever, but he goes into the women's room for whatever reason. When he's in there, he opens one of the stalls, and, if you do certain things, one of the walls of the stalls opens. Inside is a freezer compartment. Hanging on the hooks are Gorrister in the meat lockerhuman bodies. One of them is his ex-wife. The way to get out of this situation, because it is a game of ethics, it is not a game of violence, like Grand Theft Auto 5 or Shoot the Alien or whatever, it is a game of ethics, and honor, and responsibility, and kindness. It was quite ahead of its time, and I intended it as such, because I was bored of Star Wars games, and things where I just point a gun and blow shit up. He stands there in stupefied horror as these revolving racks of hooks go by, and he sees his wife. It stops, and the way out of this situation and into the next aspect of the game, is that he has to forgive his wife for whatever marital perfidy separated them, whatever malfeasance, if you will, broke them apart. He literally has to take her off the hook, like the old expression, "you're off the hook." But until you figure that out, you can't get out of there. It requires a degree of intelligence, of ratiocination. This is just one example that I remember off-hand of adding character depth to what is generally fairly superficial in video games. Video games seem to me to be an idiot's delight, what Humphrey Bogart used to call a mug's game. An enterprise for the kind of wanna-be skateboarder who goes down the middle of the yellow line on the freeway and then gets his head staved in by a van. Then people say, oh, gee, what a tragedy, but no, that wasn't a tragedy, that was an asshole, and fortunately he was taken out of the gene pool so there's no more like him around to pollute. I decided that everything in this game had to go back to the human condition, had to be generated by the kind of everyday travail that makes human beings human beings, and not otters, or pandas. One of the characters, Nimdok, was a Nazi doctor who had worked with Eichmann, Adolf Eichmann, with the horrible experiments on Jews in the prison camps. Well, of course, this got us in trouble in Germany, where they very much want to forget the Second World War and the Nimdok experiments on childrenHolocaust, and I, being a Jew, don't feel content with letting that part of history go unremembered. This character had escaped from Germany, he had gotten to Argentina to an island where he was continuing to experiment with human embryos, with babies, with twins, that kind of thing. When AM captures these five last human beings, I never said why AM selected these five. But they are all very flawed human beings. For instance, Ted is psychotic. Anything Ted says may be true, but it may be a delusion. You have no one to rely on for point of view. Benny was a brute, and is treated like a brute by AM. Yet all five of them take care of each other. The only one who is really... not an angel, but really a decent person, is Ellen. When I wrote the story, Ellen was a black woman. People would come to me and I'd say that to them, and they'd say, where is that in the story? I'd say, well, have you read the story? I urge anyone who buys the game, before they play the game, to read the story. I very clearly wrote, "Her black face against the snow." And Ellen cares about the others and tries to ease their pain, because AM is God. NIGHT DIVE: Tell us a little more about how you envision God, in this context. ELLISON: I am, along with the jazz critic Nat Hentoff—it's his quote, so I'll give him credit—a "stiff-necked Jewish atheist." I have no faith in the mythology of Gods, and that they do things for you, because every time a running back goes a hundred and two yards to the end zone and drops to his knees, crosses his chest, and praises Jesus, I think to myself, you mean God is against the other team? Why is that fair? So I, very early on in life, I mean, really, in kindergarten, got hip to the fact that all of this mythology is just mythology. It's no more valid than the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the Greek gods or the Roman gods or the Phoenician gods, the sons of Mithra. As a consequence, when I write about a God-like figure, which is what AM is, it has no mercy. It operates on the same scale as I perceive the universe to operate, which is that it is random. We don't understand it. It operates obviously on principles—gravity, and such like—but we don't understand them. We are animals. We are advanced animals, we're better than cockroaches, but not a whole hell of a lot smarter. The ant has lived for billions of years, and we'll probably be out of here in another 200. So I gave God the characteristics of a universe that doesn't give a shit. One day it'll give you the lottery and you'll make 80 million dollars, and another The main characters stand before AMit'll give you colon cancer. It is all very random. AM, which was constructed by man, is thus flawed. It has been programmed with all of man's flaws, and has the same failing as almost anything we invent. You take a knife, for instance, a knife can cut your meat for you, it can whittle a flute for a child, but a knife can also be put in the hands of a thug on the street and they'll kill you for no more than your food stamps. The same for guns, which don't have much of a purpose except to shoot things. That's the way I view the universe. It just doesn't give a shit. I guess it was Albert Einstein who said that God does not shoot craps with the universe. Well, I think he does. I think it's all very random, and I think AM, in this game, acts in a random, and essentially surly way. AM is frustrated. AM has been given sentience, prescience, great powers, and it has built for itself this universe inside the interior of an entire planet. It's nothing but plates and steel and gauges and other electronics, but it can't go anywhere, it can't do anything, it's trapped. It is, itself, like the unloved child of a family that doesn't pay it any attention. It's been programmed only to create a war, and a war that when it links up its three main parts, the Russian, Chinese, and American computers—an idea which was stolen by James Cameron when he did Terminator 2 with Skynet—it is programmed to turn upon its creators and destroy the human race, which is the biggest enemy, the biggest Dr. Moriarty that Sherlock Holmes could ever hope to challenge. It keeps these five down below for no greater purpose than to torment them. NIGHT DIVE: "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" is known for not having a precise "win condition." You can get a decent outcome, but the characters are still sacrificed in the process. Can you tell us about why this choice was made? ELLISON: When I wrote the game, I told them, right from the get-go, I'm going to create a game you cannot win. They said, "Oh, how can you do that? That's not fair!" Fair to who? I don't give a shit about the people who buy it and play it. They have nothing better to do with their time? They should be out on the hillside planting trees, serving the commonweal! Instead, they're sitting at home jerking their thumbs. So, I said I'm going to create a game from which you cannot escape, because in the short story, the only people who escape AM's torture are the ones whom Ted and Ellen put out of their misery by killing, which is an act of great mercy. It says that there is a spark of humanity in us, that in the last, final, most excruciating moment, will do the unspeakable in the name of kindness. That moment presents itself in the game, near the end, if you get through all the byways and riddles and labyrinths, but, in a sense, the game is constructed so you cannot win. It's supposed to frustrate the crap out of the people who play it. That is why, when it first came out, and for ten years thereafter, when major game magazines list the ten greatest villains that had ever been done in CD-ROMs, or video games, or point and click or whatever they call those things, AM was always number one, because he was merciless, relentless, and makes the Terminator look like a bunny rabbit. NIGHT DIVE: You mentioned earlier that the game designers would tell you what they needed, and you'd write on your typewriter for them. Can you illuminate a bit more about how that process works, how you worked with them, and how writing a game is different than writing for television or short stories. ELLISON: Well, it's very different. It's a disconnected, random process that involves an associate. David Sears, whose name is on the game... he got me. He'd read all my work, he knew my stuff, he knew the way I worked, he knew my voice... For instance, one of the background aspects of Ellen was something I had learned from women friends of mine. When a man enters an elevator, he just enters an elevator. He stands there, and he waits. When a woman enters an elevator, she's entering a closed box, like a gulag, and if another man enters, she does not know if that man is going up to the third floor to Dr. Perlaze's office, or if he's a rapist. And so, during the duration of the time a woman is in an elevator, it is a nervous time for her. I had never thought of that, it had never occurred to me. It's one of those things that a woman knows and a man does not know unless he is told. Thus, when I get into an elevator, I go to the far corner and smile and push my button and fold my hands so that the woman will be at ease. I used this thing I had learned in the segment where Ellen is raped. David and I, we were sitting side by side, right where I'm now sitting and giving you this interview. He had his computer, and I had my typewriter, they were side by side, and we were going through, step by step, the various aspects of the game, if we're in a cave, or a portico, or something, and then he'd say, "What happens here?" And I'd say, "Well, what do we need to happen at this point in the game? Do we need action, do we need adventure, do we need a secret revealed, do we need characterization?" In other words, I laid out all the aspects that I would go through as though I were writing it as a movie. I said, "What do we do next? What happens next? I'm telling a tale. How do I get through it? How do I complicate it? How do I then uncomplicate it? If I paint myself into a corner, how many exits must I provide?" They do this in movies these days very awkwardly, where they'll be in, say, the middle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and someone will say well, wait a minute, and they'll see a glyph in the middle of the southeast wall, that glyph does not fit in with the rest of the fresco, there must be another glyph somewhere else, and it'll be... there! Then they make a leap of faith, an assumption which only Sherlock Holmes would make, and they find the opposing glyph on the northwest wall instead of the southeast wall, and then they're able to draw a line and they say, well, there must be a bisecting fulcrum, and they're able to find the one tile that if they pry it up will turn the dial that will open the sculpture to go into the passage and down into the hidden tunnels. All this strains what we who write stories and movies call the willing suspension of disbelief. May I give you an example of that? NIGHT DIVE: Certainly. ELLISON: So, let's take... just to grab one at random, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Early on, they're going down a river in India, and they come to a waterfall, a huge waterfall. They're in a rubber raft. It's Indiana Jones, the girl, and Short Round, and they're going over a waterfall. Now, up until that point, a great many things happen in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which are improbable: diving out of windows, falling out of the plane in the raft, using the raft to slalom down a Tibetian mountain... all of these, though, do not defy credibility to the extend where you say, "Oh, gimmie a break," and get up and walk out of the theater. They do not defy the willing suspension of disbelief that is part and parcel of what a filmmaker or storyteller must do. You cannot tell a story and suddenly in the middle have people who are able to fly and not explain it. It doesn't... fly! So they go over the falls... now, if you take a piece of bread and butter, and you drop it, which side hits the floor first? NIGHT DIVE: Well, it's usually the side with peanut butter on it. ELLISON: Right! The heavier side, the peanut butter size. Here they are in the raft, which is a piece of bread, and up above are three people, the heavier side, and they're the peanut butter. They go over the falls... and they don't turn over! At that point I said, "This is bullshit." The writer was not a good writer, because it's an easy problem to solve. But they didn't do it! Because they were all involved with special effects the way video games are, and they don't think things out the way that a philosopher like Solomon, or Will and Ariel Durant... do you know Will and Ariel Durant? NIGHT DIVE: Afraid not. ELLISON: They wrote The Story of Civilization, an eleven book set. If you read that series of books, you'll pretty well know everything there is to know before about, I dunno, 1960. Since then, the internet and Wikipedia have destroyed all information, so we don't know what's true anymore. Did I mention how I don't like Wikipedia? NIGHT DIVE: One gets that impression from reading other interviews with you, yes. ELLISON: Among other things, they keep putting up that my wife's last name, Thoth—her name is Susan Thoth—that her last name is her middle name! And it isn't her middle name! She doesn't have a middle name! And I can't get them to take it down! It's easy enough to put up misinformation, but they're absolutely obdurate and flagrant in not doing due diligence and correcting the errors that they've made. Here's a whole generation of people who eschew books and who hate going to school and who can't read and don't know what went on in the past, and they're using Wikipedia instead of the Encyclopedia Britannica. For guys like me, that's a real bummer. NIGHT DIVE: Getting back to "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream..." you've said in previous interviews that the short story was written in one night in one draft. About twenty eight years passed between the initial printing of that story and the creation of that game. What was it like to return to the story after such a long time, and to come back to something that had become such an icon? ELLISON: I'm trying to recollect what that was like... I was resistant to it for a very long time. I'd resisted many appeals from many video game people who wanted me to do this thing or that thing or wanted me to create one or another scenarios for them, and I was reluctant to do it. Why I went for it then, many years later, I cannot with any clarity recall. But once I had established the ground rules that I was in on it from the get-go, that I would be sitting right alongside the game maker, and that it would have to pass my muster, and that I was going to create a game that no one could win, and I got them to agree with it, it became an interesting idea. It was, for me, a new métier. I had done virtually everything else, and I hadn't done a game, and I said, well, it's time, I guess, to do one of these, to see if I can do it. And I could do it, and that was nice to know. You always like to expand your horizons and test your muscles. As time goes by, you like to be able to say, "I still have the chops." NIGHT DIVE: It's really amazing that you do still "have the chops" at your age. Most people can only hope to be so productive. ELLISON: I'm in my third act. I'm 79. Three years ago I was very ill. The doctors didn't know what I had, I didn't know what I had, but like an old dog circling his mess I knew I had something. Some guy called me from a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin, and he said, "I heard there's something wrong with you. What is it?" I couldn't say I had colon cancer or pleurisy or a broken foot, they just didn't know what it was. But I knew I was ill, and very depressed, and at the lowest point in my life. That was just three years ago. This guy kept after me the way these dickwads do, he kept saying, "What's wrong with you? What's wrong with you?" and finally, I got so pissed off, I finally just said, "What part of 'I'm dying here' don't you get, asshole?" just to get rid of him. It was a foolish mistake on my part, in this day of the internet where there is no nuance and if something can be misinterpreted it will be. He went with that as his lede, "Harlan Ellison Announces He Is Dying." The next thing I knew, it went viral. All my friends were beside themselves. I was getting hundreds of calls... I got so pissed off, I went to a convention in Madison and did eight hours on the speaking platform and seventeen hours signing and attacked two people... ugh, it was a nightmare. But I came home and I went right into the hospital and went in and out of a couple of hospitals. They finally diagnosed it as clinical depression. I guess something like sixty percent of the population has it in some form, and they don't really know what to call it. It's probably the final metamorphosis of the chronic fatigue syndrome I've had for forty or fifty years. I've always been able to adrenaline myself out of it; I'd just man up and do what had to be done. But it reached a point where I just couldn't function. They got me in the hands of a new Wizard of Oz neuropharmacologist, and he started jiggering medicines. It is ironic, at my age... I've led a life of abstinence by choice. I don't drink, I don't use drugs... I don't beat my wife, I don't gamble. I'm a good husband. But here I am, taking all these pharmaceuticals now. It alarms me, but it keeps me going, and I've had a hell of a third act, including the re-issue of "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream," and fifteen books in eleven months. And they made a movie about me called Dreams With Sharp Teeth. You can watch it online. And there's now a Harlan Ellison Youtube Channel. That's doing very well. So I guess, for whatever it's worth... I've left a footprint. There's nothing more I can do, I guess, except keep on working. Every day I get up and go to the typewriter. Bertel Brecht said, "Every day I go to the marketplace where lies are sold, hopefully I place myself among the sellers." That's my craft. That's what I do. I'm a storyteller. I can't ice skate, but I can sure as shit write. NIGHT DIVE: Bringing it back to "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream..." Benny's character is very different in the game. In the short story, it is said that before AM warped his body and mind, he'd been a gay college professor. In the game, even before AM altered him, he was a brutish military man instead. Can you give some insight as to why that change was made, and whose choice it was to do that? ELLISON: Hmm. I don't really know. It was probably both me and David Sears. We felt that we should have one physical looking character that would manifestBenny, physically twisted by AM to be subhuman, regards a fruit AM's essential callousness towards humanity, and that it would torment the others emotionally. Make one psychotic and untrustworthy, another one paranoid, and Benny is just the outward physical manifestation of AM's callousness towards this human race that has given him sentience, but no future, no movement, no destiny. It's an angry god. Which is very Judeo-Christian of me, I suppose. One of the spoken word audios that I've done is the Jonathan Edwards sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." It's a great religious tract. I have summed that up in the persona of AM. NIGHT DIVE: Speaking of AM, you provide his voice, correct? ELLISON: Yeah, I voiced AM. I've done it in many places. I did it on the BBC with David Soul. I've done many readings of the story, I've done it on record, I've done it on audio... when it came time to do the CD-ROM, and they said they needed a voice for the character of AM, I said I'd do it. NIGHT DIVE: Your performance as AM is so interesting, because in many cases when you have a sinister machine character, like HAL 9000, for instance, they're always very cold and distant. AM, meanwhile, is so full of rage, so full of passion. It's very different, a very interesting take on the machine as God. ELLISON: Here's another one of my wonderful atheist tracts. Mark Twain had the greatest phrase—and this is paraphrasing—if you perceive of God as some great gray-bearded entity sitting up there waiting to see if you masturbate or not, and you look around you at the state of the world, and crippled children and hunger and starvation and sorrow and misery and everything eating everything, you are forced to the ineluctable conclusion that God is a malign thug. So when I voiced AM, I voiced him as a malign thug, to pay homage to Mark Twain. NIGHT DIVE: "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream" has a very distinct visual style, this very brutal look to everything. Buzz Aldrin's quote about the surface of the moon comes to mind, "such magnificent desolation." How much input did you have on the art and design of the game, such as Ellen's Egyptian pyramid, or Ted's Gothic castle? ELLISON: I described that all to David Sears. I have a great familiarity with many eras of history; I have a quarter of a million books in this house. Anything I would think of, I would say to David something like... the Ellen stands in the Egyptian antechamberantechamber to Khêops birthing chamber. I would go to my library and pull out a particular book and show him, if not the original antechamber, then a reconstruction of it—they've done many computer reconstructions of things as they were centuries ago—and I would show it to him, and I would say, "Do something akin to this." And later the art team would do up a sketch electronically and I would look at it, and I would say yeah, but give me more blue, because they used faïence. And they would. For desolation... I would show him, if not the Fairchild desert, the Gobi. And the art team would use that. So the designers had visualizations at hand of things that I wanted. NIGHT DIVE: If you were ever approached about doing a game again, would you consider accepting? If you did, are there any particular short stories of yours that would work well for a game, or would you prefer to create something original? ELLISON: If I was approached, and they crossed my palm with sufficient silver, I would say yes. Adapting one of my stories? Yes, that's a possibility. Starting from scratch is also a good possibility. Whatever it would be, it would not be an ordinary game. It would not be in the mode of the games today that are the most popular. Someone would have to be a damn fool to come after me. They'd have to take a risk. NIGHT DIVE: Well, there are a few fools in the gaming industry, but perhaps not the right kind of fool. ELLISON: There's a great many dreamers, and they never seem to make a distinction between dream and reality, so they become a cropper. I don't want to waste... I've got maybe five, ten years left, max? I don't want to waste them. I was fortunate enough to be good enough to do "I Have No Mouth, and I must Scream" as a game. Whatever I would venture to do in that line would have to be better. NIGHT DIVE: Are you working on any current projects you can tell us about? ELLISON: The next book I have coming out is based on an anecdote that happened to me and Carl Sagan in South Philly a number of years ago. It's called, Lil' Six Gun Harlan and his Sidekick Carl the Comet in Dangerland. It's a small chapbook, and it's coming out from Subterranean Press in about two months. It'll be illustrated by Gahan Wilson. The next book thereafter is called Flintlock, which is a script for the unproduced third Derek Flint movie. That's being published through Charnel House. The next book after that is a new edition of my short story collection, Ellison Wonderland, with a long, long new introduction by me. There are two books coming out soon of short stories I've written that have never been collected. Those will be coming out next year. I have under option any number of stories for movies, one of which is "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." NIGHT DIVE: That would be an intense movie. ELLISON: God knows if it'll ever get made. I have at least six movies under option. And ABC and the SyFy channel are talking to me about doing another series for them. Of course, there's the ongoing Harlan Ellison YouTube channel I mentioned. Is that enough stuff for me to be doing at 79? NIGHT DIVE: Can you suggest any up and coming writers you think we should be reading? ELLISON: New writers! The two best writers that I know today, barring Donald Westlake, who just died... there's a writer named Andy Duncan. There's another named Paul di Filippo. Two of my great passions, at the moment. NIGHT DIVE: Thank you very much for taking the time do do this interview with us. ELLISON: My pleasure.

If you're interested in Ellison's other work, or wish to know more about him, we highly recommend checking out Harlan Ellison Books, a website for his current work, and Harlan Ellison Webderland, a website with bibliographical and biographical information. Ellison also appears on his own YouTube channel.

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