WritersUA Conference Topic

I’ll be presenting at the upcoming WritersUA – The Conference for Software User Assistance.

Here’s the cover slide of my presentation:
Conversation in Key Cover Slide

Here’s the prose summary of my presentation:

User assistance must be understood in a larger context in order to maintain its value and relevance. Documentation, training, and customer support must all be integrated as part of a conversation with the customer. At Paragon, customer support includes helping the customer understand how to use the product more effectively but also having the customer help us to understand what they are trying to accomplish. So adding videos, e-learning, and doing regular web conferences with customers augments what we produce in terms of online help and a knowledge base and becomes just part of a conversation with the customer. As we drive our user assistance projects, we must recognize that they are part of a larger ecosystem of information, namely the customer conversation that starts with a sales transaction and continues with customer support. If you are in a small company, or a small department of a large enterprise, and have to develop user assistance for software, you need to consider more than just the narrowest definition of user assistance centered on your product. This presentation aims at encouraging you to converse with your customer, collaborate with your customer, and ultimately to succeed by helping your customer succeed.

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Wildlife Friends

Anyone who has visited Bass Lake Park in Holly Springs, NC, has seen the turtles basking in the sun. There are ducks and all manner of fish in the lake and occasionally I have disturbed the solitude of the Great Blue heron that calls that lake home. It’s a good thing that these species and wildlife around this region have a new set of friends – the South Wake Conservationists, a local wildlife club of individuals who want to conserve wildlife habitat and teach us in the general public about wildlife habitat and diversity.

You can find out more about them at www.SouthWakeConservationists.org. They are having a public “grand opening” event on November 13th from 7:00pm to 9:00pm at their headquarters, namely Bass Lake Park.

I attended one of their board meetings tonight, while I was in Holly Springs, and everyone was gracious and welcoming. Stephanie Wage, the group’s president, greeted me and ran the meeting. Her energy will keep the group growing. The group is starting with humble beginnings, but they have the passion to accomplish great things.
South Wake Conservationists Board Meeting

This photo is not very good – Stephanie is off to the side, but she will have plenty of chances to be seen and photographed at the upcoming open house. And the members were only looking at the printed report for a few minutes – most of the time was spent in lively discussion about upcoming events. I think Holly Springs (and nearby Apex, Fuquay-Varina, etc.) should be glad to have such a caring and friendly group. I’m glad that there will be friends of the local wildlife.

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What better way to spend a lunch during the work week than at a fancy restaurant with colleagues who you respect and who respect you. TimelyText hosted a luncheon at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse that was well attended and quite enjoyable. Between the delicious meal and the good conversation, I can’t think of a better boost to my day. TimelyText knows there are things that technical writers and instructional designers value highly, and recognition and respect are two of them. Having a meal at Fleming’s was a great experience.
TimelyText luncheon at Flemings Steakhouse
Ronnie Duncan recognized Chuck Arnold who was one of their original contract tech writers. The TimelyText staff were present and were so nice – Kai Heath did a great job of MC-ing. Everyone received a container of M&Ms (with TimelyText printed on them) just for the fun of it. (You can never go wrong with giving chocolate.)
TimelyText M&Ms
There was just an air of feeling valued by a leading provider of communication professionals. I was glad I sat at a table with Adrian West and fellow writers (and a project manager) that offered some fun conversation while eating together. It was fun to recognize that there are many of us experienced professionals in similar situations, whether working for big companies or small companies, that involve developing and maximizing the flow of accurate and relevant information with a limited budget. Even with new tools and dynamic processes, the value of the experienced professional cannot be underestimated.

Keep up the great work, TimelyText.

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Robert Perry Takes Helm at STC Carolina Chapter

Robert Perry is off and running as the new chapter president of the Carolina Chapter of STC (Society for Technical Communication). I first caught up with him, after not having seen him for the past few years, at the Mez restaurant in Durham, despite the torrential rain that evening. He is always in motion, as evidenced by his blurry appearance in the photos in this post. He talked with those of us who braved the elements (and miraculously found parking in a very popular restaurant). The evening was social, but there was plenty to talk about. A few new faces and some familiar ones, too, were present. (There were at least two past presidents at the table.) The food was delicious and the service was great. While the nominal agenda was a recap of the latest STC Summit, I think we talked more about a range of other topics. Many of us come from different backgrounds and are working in truly interesting places.

Carolina Chapter members socializing at the Mez restaurant

Not long after, Robert had what the chapter calls ‘Vision Day’ — but it was really just an hour or two meeting that summarized the events for the coming year and gave everyone a chance to brainstorm some new ideas. Several meeting topics were proposed, but the one that drew the most discussion was about technical communicators are working in Agile teams (in software development groups).

Robert Perry and the energized Carolina Chapter members

I think Robert will do fine this year as president of the chapter.

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Still in the Top 40!

It certainly came as a surprise to see my name on a list of “influential” technical communicators again this year. I consider myself honored to be in such a list of influencers. In 2014, the fourth year I’ve been on the list, I’m still in the Top 40 TechComm Influencers. I guess I better pay attention to the influence I’m having.

See the list: 2014 Top 50 Most Influential TechComm Experts: Connect at STC Summit, TechWhirl, or WriteTheDocs!.

Most Influential in Techcomm

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Short Post for Short Films

NCSU Student Short File Showcase program cover

NCSU doesn’t advertise this much but the Student Short Film Showcase, an event at which students showed their short films, short animations, and short videos, was an entertaining evening of creativity and exploration, of both art and communication.

Students at Short Film Showcase

There was a small crowd there – mostly students. The auditorium at Hunt Library is huge and so even with more than 50 people, there was still plenty of seating. The technical difficulty, where sound was lost temporarily, was overcome and the students did a great job of answering questions about their work. While I’m partial to animation (and enjoyed The Heist, Cotton Unity, and Shelter) I also enjoyed the live action film, with pieces with such names as Level 3 East, The Game of Fate, and Prism.

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SpeedCon 2014

What can I say? Some of the best friendships start as chance meetings. Some of the best works or best ideas come about from the least effort. And so it was at this weekend’s SpeedCon 2014; I so thoroughly enjoyed myself with new people in a radically new place and feel as if new ideas and new friendships have formed. In typical (or should I say atypical) style, the ‘unconference on communication’ gave us an opportunity to leave behind the ordinary and experience a fantastic way to look at communication from the inside out.

SpeedCon 2014 Montage

From arriving at the James Hunt Library, you feel you are on the set of the latest Star Trek movie about to enter the Starship Academy. The inside of the building is new and clean, and you sense you are stepping with one foot into the future with all the latest digital technology so readily available throughout the building. But despite the presence of smart walls and surround screens, most sessions dealt with more personal aspects of human communication that we encounter both in our workplace and in our personal lives.

Sarah Egan Warren did a great job hosting the conference and Jen Riehle was the silent partner, keeping everything going like clockwork. Timely Text and STC Carolina Chapter did a great service in sponsoring the lunch and desert, respectively. It would have been great to have seen more STC-ers there. Progress Software also helped in sponsoring the event. The topics of talks ranged from MOOCs to infographics to GitHub with a little DITA and crisis communication thrown in. My favorite talk was about video planning – Ashley Hardin from NetApp did a great job presenting some real-world challenges to providing technical content in video form for consumers of the content both internal to her organization and external to it. Of course, Dr. David Kroll’s brief run-through of his fascination with science communication with the public gave me plenty to think about. Ms. Warren’s “moving” talk on Pecha Kucha was both fun and thought provoking. Here she is in action:


One of the highlights was the tour of the library, the facility where the event was held. The tour guide who introduced us to the ‘book bot’ and explained so many of the resources available at this library made me wish I had asked her name. She was able to explain so much, almost in story form, and all from memory, while walking with up through the four floors and out on to a balcony before returning to our sessions. She was a wonder of communication in her own right. So many times that day, I asked myself “How can we ever understand all the dimensions of human communication?”

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Articulating Complexity

Yesterday, I learned on Twitter that the movie Shored Up was being shown on NC State University’s Centennial Campus in the auditorium of the new Hunt Library which had been declined by the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Since the documentary had something to do with beaches, I thought I’d check it out. I was surprised when I got there to see so many people. The auditorium was nearly full and by the time the movie showed, there were people in the aisles and in the back who could not find a seat. I guess the issues surrounding development, restoration, and use of beaches can draw a crowd. There were some pretty important people there – a panel of speakers who would address the audience after the movie, including the director of the movie.

Shored Up Panel at NCSU Hunt Auditorium

For background on the event, check out these news articles:

The movie was an interesting collection of personal anecdote and science references – it explored a few different points of view on the state of our barrier beaches and suggested that the future will bring some difficult questions for those who want to keep thinking of the land on barrier islands as ordinary beaches that can remain the same. There was a lot of talk about science and politics, and even some economics (though not as much as science and politics). It definitely should get some discussion going. I was glad that NCSU hosted the showing and provided some time for the panel to voice some opinions and even answer some questions from the audience.

The movie attributed John McPhee’s The Control of Nature as a source of inspiration and it was clear from the movie’s content that this was the point of view of the movie’s creator. NCSU’s Dr. Kenneth Zagacki was there to keep the conversation going – exploring the ways that complex issues are presented to multiple audiences. The documentary had the voice of a few advocacy groups such as the American Littoral Society but it offered a range of voices and opinions.

For me it was an introduction to the idea of sea level rise in a way that is visible to me, since I enjoy going to North Carolina shore. Here are some links with some of the research findings:

This event was a great collaboration of different schools within NCSU and was a great opportunity to explore an issue that we face today.

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Augmented Recognition

At tonight’s TriUXPA meeting, Mona Singh did a great job of giving us some perspective on the emerging technologies that are called “Augmented Reality”. She showed us some apps on her smart phone and let us all see some small examples of what is out there already in terms of information that augments the display looking through the camera of her smart phone. The picture below shows her with her container of ketchup at which she pointed her phone in a demonstration of how companies are using “AR” to provide more information to consumers about their products. The other part of the picture shows the group gathered for her presentation. Thanks to TEKSystems for hosting the event.

Photo of TriUXPA Meeting with Mona Singh

But really what we’re talking about here is an augmented display, where additional information is displayed on the screen of a device (or a windshield of a car, or glasses worn by the user). So we’re not augmenting reality, but augmenting the view of reality. For me, an example of something that could more accurately be called augmented reality is my cup that changes color when you put a cold drink in it – the cup itself is changing color, not just my view of it through a device or a special pair of glasses. Or the road signs along the highway that say what is at this next exit – the road is real, the signs are real and augment the real road. But it’s probably too late to change the use of that phrase. You see, what I would call it would be “augmented display” but that sounds too wimpy. So how about “Augmented Recognition” so we can still use the acronym “AR”. What Mona taught us is that half the challenge of this technology is to recognize the buildings on the street or where the road is or whose face is in the view. So the technology is really augmenting what it recognizes with more digital information about what it recognizes.

But that being said, she shared some apps that are readily available:

There are also others:

Mona clarified for us that Google Glass, at least at this point in their development, is really not an augmented reality, just a more intimate display, by placing information in a small rectangle in the upper right corner of your field of view. It can be voice activated to take a picture or video, or gesture-activated (tapping a finger) to take some action, but it does not display information about the items in your view per se.

Another challenge besides handling the recognition of things in your view, and then displaying information on or around those items, is converging the information with the items in your view. While head up display (HUD) technology has been around for decades, the trend seems to be to make it more accessible to a range of devices in a range of different contexts.

I can think of a few further challenges for this technology. One is what I’d call “shared augmentation”. So while I’m driving, I’d like the augmented information to display not on my view of the windshield but on my passenger’s view, since she has volunteered to be my navigator. While I pilot the craft working in reality, she can help interpret the mass of data about which exit to take based on which stores or mountain vistas or fueling stations are there. Certainly one of the challenges will be to filter the information to show only what I’m most interested in. Just as Netflix is beginning to learn what movies I like and Pandora knows what music I like, my AR device should learn what information I’m most interested in seeing in a given context. Perhaps there is even a high-level (or meta) challenge here – to augment the augmentation. So if I’ve got information augmenting my view and I want to know where the information is coming from (commercial or governmental or non-profit, for example) can I flick a switch and see the information about the information?

There is more to write, but I’ll post this for now and add to it later. It was a great presentation and great group that enjoyed the discussion. One of the members recommended watching Sight on YouTube for a taste of what lies ahead.

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The Universality of Lines

It is a puzzling aspect of our civilization that I can sit in the most sophisticated high-tech multi-media space in our concentrated downtown and watch a presentation about an ancient civilization that moved rocks on a desert floor to accomplish what might have been the theatrical equivalent of their day.

If you haven’t been to the Daily Planet in downtown Raleigh, you have to check it out. It’s a great multi-media space that offers a superb visual and audio experience. Thanks to the State Employees Credit Union (SECU) for helping to fund that.


Virginia and I went to see Dr. Charles Stanish present about the iconic geoglyphs in the plains along the western side of Peru. Billed by the museum as a talk on the Nazca lines, Dr. Stanish went further and talked about his research into the earlier Paracas culture and lines they drew near burial mounds and structures that he is in the process of unearthing with his research students. He ended his talk with some answers to questions, one of which got him telling us that there are large lines or geoglyphs in every continent where there are people. There is something universal about it. The phrase he used was “theatrical landscape”. Having been to the Nazca lines myself (and having heard Maria Reiche) I was familiar with the geoglyphs but I had not realized how much more research there was to do in other parts of Peru. There is still so much mystery to solve.

Dr. David J. Kroll (Director of Science Communications, NC Museum of Natural Science) introduced the speaker and was a gracious host handling questions at the end of the talk and making us all feel welcome there.

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Easing – An Essential Skill

The most recent Refresh the Triangle Meetup was insightful, fun, and, well, refreshing. Once Upon a Timeline: HTML5/CSS3 tools for cross-platform interactive animations was an informative presentation with a happy ending.
Adam Winsor (illustrator, animator, and visual storyteller) introduced us to some of the tools and techniques of making animation with HTML5 using his own animation project. He demonstrated how he adeptly uses Adobe Edge Animate CC to make compelling storybook animation. He kept the audience of 40 professionals interested for over an hour showing us how to make the pieces (assets) that are assembled and put in motion to produce a finished story. But he was a humble presenter and did not freeze when he stumbled for the right word; he simply admitted, “My imagination is broken” and carried on. He motivated the use of HTML5/CSS3 as simply a substitute made necessary by the death of Flash. (I wonder if there is more justification than that – if HTML5/CSS3 becomes the accepted standard for web pages as everyone assumes.)


Adam, like many of us in the communication profession, is between disciplines. He is an animator, an artist creatively capturing ideas in moving images, but he is also a technical person not afraid to share with us his use of the latest computerized animation development tool set, a geek who likes to draw pictures and make them move. One of the important terms that Adam taught me in his presentation was the term “easing”. It is the smoothing of otherwise jagged mechanical movement so that it becomes more realistic in the finished animation. This seems a perfect term for what is needed in so many aspects of communication. If I can stretch the term and apply it to user interface design and human interaction in generation, it could be used to describe the necessary smoothing of how people speak and act, how they present themselves and their ideas, and how they connect with their audience to be more understandable, easier to relate to, more acceptable. At a few spots in his own presentation, Adam showed the need for this type of “easing” to smooth out some of the jagged edges of his presentation but all of us know what it’s like to present to such a big group and Adam was fine. Whether when he was deep into the details of the tool or when he switched topics in mid-discussion, he could have used some easing. But overall he did a great job and people really enjoyed his presentation.

Engaged in work that spans disciplines that are traditionally separate, I know the challenges of harmonizing distinct worldviews. I work with technical guys but I like to talk and write – I like to communicate with others which means I’m not a total geek. But I like technical details and learning about the latest technical advances, which puts me apart from my writing friends. I think Adam and I have a lot in common and I look forward to hearing more about his success.

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Lots of Color

Yes, I went ahead with it anyway. Last month, inspired by the visual excitement of Richmond, Virginia, and hearing tales from my colleague Wendy, at work, about the Color My Run, I bought two tickets to the event here in Raleigh, confident that Virginia and I would get some exercise in a new way and that she would enjoy the surprise. As often happens in life, plans change, and this weekend, Virginia is up visiting her Mom and brothers. But I went and did the Run anyway.

My Number for Color My Run

There must have been a thousand people there at the Walnut Creek Amphitheater by the start of the run. I arrived early so I could register with my Groupon but then I had to wait around – which gave me a chance to see all the types of people. Every age and height was represented.

It’s funny that ‘Color’ is both a noun and a verb. The DJ who was priming the crowd kept shouting Who wants color? and then he’d whip a bag of color powder into the crowd. Yes, that’s why we came – to get brightly colored. I won’t give away how it all works, how we come to get color dumped on us; I’ll leave that for those of you who have yet to try this event. But let’s just say it’s not a race, and I’m not even sure it’s an official 5K run – I crossed the finish line in a half an hour which is too short a time for me since I walked a good portion of it. The funny thing is that I almost had to walk parts of it; it was so crowded people couldn’t run, even though they broke the crowd into two waves to try to space us out a bit. Everyone got color and everyone had fun. With all those people, with all the silliness of color (and beach balls) and music, it was more of a party than a run. A very active party. The weather could not have been better – cool morning warming up quickly in the North Carolina June sun.

Crowd at Color My Run

Two shots of color

The Color My Run certainly had more color than run. And it had plenty of fun. Or at least silliness. Too bad ‘fun’ isn’t both a noun and a verb. If you want fun, I highly recommend this colorful event.

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Not Your Ordinary User Group Meeting

Last night the Raleigh Salesforce User Group outdid themselves and had a user group meeting like no other. We met at Tyler’s Taproom in downtown Durham, in the back room, for a presentation by TerraSky‘s Tony Nelson about Sky Visual Editor. He showed how it can be used to transform your Salesforce user interface easily. The crowd got loud but somehow Tony got through it; there was interest by more than a few of us. But it wasn’t the best setting for a presentation by a vendor. There was a very big crowd of us – I counted over fifty of us.

User Group at Tyler's Taproom

I’ve heard we have one of the more active chapters. Well, I’d have to say that we’re one of the more innovative, too. Experimenting with a setting like this and then inviting everyone to a baseball game afterward with tickets paid and coupons for concessions along with that, well, this was just a great idea. It might not work for everyone, but you have to admit it was worth a try. Hats off to the Raleigh Salesforce User Group for pulling this off. And the award for enduring the loudest, most raucous meeting goes to the folks at TerraSky. Good job!

The baseball game, the Durham Bulls versus the Buffalo Bison, was a good game, too. The fifth inning was high scoring and fun. I have to admit I didn’t stay for all nine innings but it was relaxing to kick back and enjoy the relaxing tempo of an American past time that belongs in the slower summer days if not in an earlier, slower era.
Durham Bulls Scoreboard

The ball park was fun to see – I had not seen it for years. There are now buildings all around and a tighter feeling. We are in an urban center; business in Durham is picking up and the downtown, with DPAC (Durham Performing Arts Center) and all, offering more. I took the picture below of a small boy throwing the ball with the players as they were warming up before the game. You have to start small. You have to start somewhere. This user group is starting small and growing. Those of us using Salesforce are starting small and learning how to work with cloud solutions and how to handle our data.

players are getting younger everyday

I’m looking forward to a full year of good user group meetings, a year of learning how to use Salesforce more effectively, and a year of seeing more of Durham and the Raleigh-Durham area.

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War Memorial as Text

For this Memorial Day, I visited a new war memorial that was recently dedicated here in Garner, North Carolina. Walking in the Garner Veterans Memorial is a beautiful and educational moment. It is set near the entrance in the lovely and spacious Lake Benson Park.

Garner Veterans Memorial entrance

The vertical pieces look like slabs of North Carolina clay that have been stood up, as if suggesting something from the earth coming up to face you. Each slab has a different decade and mentions the war or wars that were fought. There is a lot of text at this memorial and yet it works. There is enough space, and enough time if you can take it, to walk among these tributes to the fallen in arms.

Garner Veterans Memorial

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Micro-Momentum and Designing Interaction

At a recent TriUXPA meeting, we listened to a recorded webinar by Stephen Anderson (thanks UIE) about Designing for Micro-moments.

One of his themes was that interactions (as in user interaction with a web site or web application) is a conversation and so should be treated as such when we design interfaces. What does the user need? Consider how they want it and not just what they want. Consider when they need information for continuing the conversation. Conversations are a good way of treating these micromoments as he calls them – little steps in the course of interaction. Of course these atomic actions add up to a task or a larger interaction. And these are done by humans, which is what his design emphasis is about. He somewhat sidestepped the question about localization/translation – once you make it a conversation, then you have to worry about framing and all that sociolinguistic stuff that we take for granted when we are having a conversation with someone, all that context stuff so no one is offended or confused, as happens in ordinary conversations.

But it was a good, thought-provoking webinar, and a bunch of us stayed after to talk about it. There were not many of us at this meeting, which surprised me because I thought the topic was very relevant to our work and the time of the event was not unreasonable. But those of us who did attend enjoyed the chance to share with each other. By the way, thanks, Capstrat for hosting – the food was delicious and the meeting room was very accommodating.

I have a few criticisms of Stephen’s approach but mainly he’s trying to figure out Web design as we all are; it’s still a young discipline. So I’m only mentioning these in as much as he’s setting himself up as a role model with a successful methodological approach to design. When he says ‘No Lorem Ipsum’ I think what he’s saying is you can’t predict the layout because you need to put in the actual words – but I also think he’s saying don’t use any long paragraphs of text. That seems to go along with the instant response expected by the latest generation of users – no wasted time, no long conversations. He says he doesn’t do requirements up front; he likes the agile or lean approach, but then he tells us he asks a list of questions first, which sounds like a list of requirements to me. When he says that he likes the lean and agile or bottom-up approach (attacking one small part of the user interface and working out from there) the reason he can be so successful is that the unit of task or amount of design is so small and atomic. Of course that works at the small scale. And of course he can do it by himself, so he has complete control. The challenge of course is for the larger conversation – the entire web site or web application that requires a collaborative (and cooperative) effort. For big projects, things get messy and you have to employ some aspects that are not so lean or agile as when one person has control. You need more than just a little micromomentum to get the user through it all. But he’s doing a great job and has a great level or professionalism and design sense, so I applaud his work and am glad he shares what he’s doing on webinars such as this. I wish all of the professionals at the meeting were given time to present their ideas – I think we all have a lot to learn and can learn a lot from each other.

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Richmond: A City Rich in Visual Expression

I recently went to Richmond, Virginia, for the weekend to see my niece’s graduation and to be a part of the celebration. I went a day early and toured the city a bit. My hotel was downtown, amidst one way streets and road construction, but close to the convention center where the graduation ceremony was. The old and new buildings mix and match in interesting juxtaposition. My niece’s apartment (and several thrift stores I wanted to visit) were further west in the Fan district. My plan was to have supper at the cafe in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). I underestimated the size of that facility – it’s an entire campus. There is so much visual art there – inside and out.
VFMA grounds

There is so much visual art in the entire city. Painted buildings, monuments everywhere, art in and on buildings. Even under the interstate overpass there are artworks hanging for public view. Art is part of the personality of Richmond.
Art under overpass

Getting along is also part of the personality of Richmond. From its confederate-centric past, it is a city of the twenty first century. I visited the Confederate War Memorial Chapel (or Pelham Chapel) – it was a home for wounded soldiers in the Civil War and after the war was a place where reunions were held for soldiers on both sides. While the confederacy is a part of the legacy of Richmond, it certainly isn’t front and center. I didn’t see a single confederate flag while I was there. All I saw were students graduating and parents and siblings flowing around like ants.

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