22 December, 2013

Jesus' Confusing Birth

It came to pass in those days there went out from President Obama a decree all nations under the American Peace must contribute to their own protection. This decree came in the third presidential term of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, and all people went to be counted in a U.N. census, every one to own city.

Joseph also went up from Khandahar in the Southwest Plateau into Ghazni, the city of Mahmud (because Joseph was of the lineage of Mahmud) to be taxed with Maryam, his wife.

Luke wrote his gospel to Greeks and Romans. It can be helpful to look at his gospel through their eyes, and how they'd have seen it very differently from a Jew of their day or a Christian of our own.

+ Presidents Bush and Obama keep the peace in Afghanistan at the cost of the occasional civilian casualty. Caesar Augustus kept his own peace-keeping forces in Judea, though his limited technology led to somewhat different rules of engagement for Roman garrisons.
+ Afghanistan is a province most Americans wish they'd never heard of. Judea was very much the same thing to a Roman. It was a constant cesspool of rebellion, full of enemies, and providing almost no economic worth to the empire.
+ We know Afghanistan as a hidey-hole for terrorists. Judea grew a steady crop of Zealots who'd gladly suicide to take a few Romans with them.
+ Hamid Karzai is the President of Afghanistan, and Herod the Great was the Roman-installed, Roman-monitored leader of Judea.
+ The Taliban promises as soon as the people obey Sharia law fully, Allah will free the nation from their tyrannical overlords. In Judea, the Pharisees insisted essentially the same thing about Rome.
+ One word from a woman's betrothed about her pregnancy would unleash the Taliban's wrath on her instantly. Joseph faced the same concern for Mary.
+ American culture has largely outgrown the stigma of unwed childbirth, and so had the Roman and Greek cultures. Luke had a job explaining Jewish morality to his culturally advanced readers!

The Jesus story was to Luke's readers the story of a nobody born to nobodies in a nowhere backwater ruled by suicidal terrorists, religious fanatics, and a sycophantic king. It was just another weird story from a weird place!

The Jesus story provoked the average Roman to wonder why would God be born in such a place when Rome was available? Rome had the CNN of the ancient world. Anything to happen in Rome could be known the world over in weeks. And if God were to schedule His debutante's ball for Judea, why send an army of angels to announce Himself to shepherds? What kind of glory or intimidation could they bring? Why hide from Herod, Quirinius, and the High Priest of that Jewish religion?

Our God handled the event mysteriously to the Roman mind, and also to the American mind. The American mind grapples with it by asserting God was trying to prove His love to the very least, or He was fulfilling prophecies to His people. American's look at God's odd behavior and need to find some ultimately victorious strategery.

I settle for something simpler.

My sentimental favorite theory is Jesus was unwilling to seat Himself at the head of the table, preferring to seat Himself in the humblest place and allow the host to move Him up. He announced Himself as God in the humblest way imaginable, and He did it for all the reasons He gave His disciples.

Or did He tell the parable because He knew it was true, even of the most important things? What Jesus actually did greatly outweighed what people knew about what He did. The doing was sufficient, even if no gawking spectators are amazed by the event. One doesn't play a fanfare when planting a seed. One plants it. A man who trumpets the planting of his seed doesn't truly trust the mystery of gardening. He wants his credit now, in case the crop never comes. Jesus knew He was planting Himself deeply in rich soil, and the family He reaped would be without end. He needed no audience.

The humility of Christ's birth bears a message, but the message is of God's total confidence. God needs no props from His enemies and only love from His friends.

31 October, 2013

Book Review: High Price

I found High Price: Drugs, Neuroscience, and Discovering Myself incredibly moving, which is unexpected in a discussion of the neuroscience of addiction. There are two general classes of people who will profitably wrestle with the claims of Dr. Carl Hart, those in relationship with someone addicted and those who care about the state of black opportunity in America. When the book began I was in the first class, but by the end I found myself in both.

Dr. Hart is a reasonable and angry black man living in a nation that imprisons its black drug users at a vastly higher rate than its white drug users. At a time when 13% of America's drug users were black, 46% of those convicted for drug crimes were black. Dr. Hart ties that number to the demonization of crack cocaine. Until 2010, the possessor of an amount of crack cocaine received the same penalty as the possessor of 100 times that potency of powdered cocaine.

Dr. Hart is also a neuroscientist specializing in the effects of addictive substances on the human brain. When this neuroscientist tells me there's no meaningful difference between the effects of powdered versus crack cocaine on the brain, I'm inclined to believe him. And when he tells me inequitable sentencing laws exist because politicians are much more likely to be elected when they're tougher on black crime than on white crime, I grudgingly have to admit he might have a point.

And finally, Dr. Hart is a survivor of the destructive South Florida 'hoods that produced the hip-hop phenomenon Run DMC and countless dangerous gangsta thugs. Dr. Hart tenderly shares how his family has been impacted by too many of the stereotypical dysfunctions of those 'hoods, and his own story is one of success only by the narrowest of margins. He made it out because of his own willpower, but it was a willpower given opportunity thanks to random strokes of luck, the generosity of many mentors, and the necessary support of American liberal politics. Dr. Hart is a walking exception, but he's not forgotten his roots. And he's not forgotten the streets never needed to be so mean.

High Price: Drugs, Neuroscience, and Discovering Myself was written more to fix the root problem of drugs in America than to help individual addicts recover. I'm hesitant to summarize his formula for that fix here, because he builds his radical approach on a carefully constructed foundation, but if I try it's in hopes you'll actually read this book. Let me give just a couple hints of the data and anecdotes he supplies.
  1. You know that rat that keeps pushing the button that gives him hits of cocaine until he dies of starvation? And how that experiment was promoted as proving the powerful addictive power of cocaine? Did you know the rats in question were all kept in solitary confinement, and the only things in their cages were cocaine and food? No friends. No mates. No toys. No paths to investigate. Nothing.

    Put me in that situation, and I might O.D. on cocaine, too.

    Rats placed in a stimulating and normal environment with access to cocaine spend their time very much like rats without access to cocaine. The compulsive behavior of their more famous cousins doesn't exhibit itself in the presence of healthy stimuli. (And don't even start me on the experiments demonstrating Oreo cookies are equally as addictive as cocaine.)
  2. There are two significant differences between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. The first is that crack cocaine can be smoked rather than snorted, which causes it to hit the blood stream in a more concentrated rush. The hit comes faster and harder, but it's no more intoxicating than powdered cocaine. To achieve the same rush using powdered cocaine it has to be injected, which is inconvenient, but both products cause the same intoxication.

    The second difference is that crack cocaine is cheaper, making it the drug of choice for poor blacks. It's sold in smaller quantities on street corners, while powdered cocaine is sold in larger quantities behind closed doors.

    Crack cocaine is not radically more addictive than powdered cocaine, but it is radically more targeted for enforcement.
  3. The social problems of the mean streets of South Florida existed before crack cocaine was ever invented, and the invention of crack cocaine has not meaningfully increased those problems. South Florida had addicts before it had cocaine, and it always will. Addiction is a personal problem, not a drug problem. An addict who cannot obtain one drug will use another, and a non-addict will not become addicted no matter what intoxicants are made available to him. Addiction is a problem of pain management.
Dr. Hart's solution to the root cause of drug addiction is to present other powerful ways to manage pain than chemical relief. Chief among those other pain management tools is the skillset required to succeed in our society, and we are actively taking that tool out of the hands of our black men.

It is painfully obvious our inner cities are not fully equipping their children to succeed in white collar America, but the problem only begins there. Thanks to the war on drugs, one misstep undoes whatever little good may have been done for these people. Being caught one time with a meager amount of crack cocaine results in a life-long felony record, with its life-long impact on every opportunity America has to offer.

Those of you who reveled in Jean Valjean's story as told in Les Miserables should consider the difficulties a black man suffers after being caught with that threshold amount of crack cocaine. No amount of change or growth will remove that scar from his life. The only injustice Valjean suffered at Javert's hand was the blind imposition of unfair justice, but that's exactly what we are imposing on one out of every three black men in America. And when those men finally complete their prison terms, they have no more stake in their own society, our society. We've left them without hope, and that makes them dangerous people indeed.

These facts barely touch the surface of what I learned from High Price. The main thing I learned is that 80% of drug users will go on to lead normal, healthy, productive lives, given the chance. Black drug users no longer get that chance. They go to prison, and when they come out their opportunity at a normal life is gone.

Dr. Hart convinced me, from many different perspectives, we are reaping in violence exactly what we've sown in false justice. We are ruining lives that could be and should be saved.

I highly recommend challenging yourself with this book.

04 September, 2013

Chasing the Shingle Creek Passage

I’m writing this from a beach chair at Publix beside my dead car, awaiting the tow truck. The Florida sun is doing what the Florida sun does, and the clouds look like they’re stirring up to do what Florida clouds do, what they did yesterday.
Yesterday, we dropped the van at a local retirement village, and took the car about three miles away to a public kayak put-in. We’d drop into Shingle Creek, take a south passage through a promising cypress stand to where it joins a more sizable river, and pull back out at the retirement village. There’d we’d visit a friend of ours, and gather everything up a for a nice ride home.
To be continued.
The car's safely at the shop now and I'm back in the air conditioning, clicking a real keyboard.
The put-in went smoothly. We were flowing with the current, concerned only the Florida sun might burn us before we arrived at our friend's. Laziness was our watchword. Dana hates adventure, and we were both content to watch the sun dappling the river-bottom through tannin-infused water. A leaf rolling with the flow tumbled into a sun-beam and glowed fiery red from under the water. Just as quickly, it rolled back over to its brown side and relinquished the spotlight to some duckweed or a spray of stray bubbles rising from the muck.
At points there were interesting things on the other side of the river, but paddling way over there was far too much work. We drifted for nearly an hour, enjoying Florida and admiring the stream as it narrowed. Soon, we could touch trees on both sides of our channel at the same time. The water was still there, but it was no longer gathered into a neat creek. Instead, it spread wide throughout a plain of cypress. The Everglades are like this. They call it, "The River of Grass," because it's actually a single miles-wide river running slow and shallow across our virtually level state. 
Our creek became a river of cypress.
Towering cypress are always surrounded by nubbins called "cypress knees," about 12 inches tall. We found ourselves snaking between knees, dodging peacefully left and right, wending our way, following the best flow of our channel. We noticed quickly the best path was always marked by orange trail blazes. Someone had mapped a course through our maze, and we had only to follow it.
Who knows how far we went in the next hour. We don't. One mile? Two? Like the frog in the slowly warming water, we'd noticed the channel overgrowing but we saw only reason for hope. At one point, I'd had to jump out of the kayak to help it over a log. At another we were bunny hopping ourselves over multiple submerged logs. All the while, the tree cover was growing thicker, the shade deeper, the weeds wilder, the water darker, and channel narrower. But the little orange blazes beckoned us onward with their promise of passage. Someone had gone before us.
The blazes continued past the sign that said the trail ends, and so did we.
The little things kept lightening our mood. A flock of ibis or a beautiful egret not used to seeing people. A wine bottle tied up as a sign to weary travelers. Cypress knees like mini terracotta armies, mothers with babies, or some other abstract art. And the little things kept darkening our mood, too. More and bigger spiders than I'd ever seen in my life falling into our kayak by the dozens, the sound of solid limbs hitting and poking our inflatable kayak, the bubbles popping on the surface when I stepped in especially organic muck. I don't know how many times I looked at the boat to see whether the bubbles were coming from the muck or a puncture.
A half hour after passing the end of the trail, the water flowed under some weird field of lily pads too thick to break with paddles. I was out on foot again, but we passed safely through and the orange blazes led us on. There were chainsaw cuts keeping the path clear, but before long I was walking and towing the kayak far more than we were paddling. Once we completed our passage and joined the main river, though, all would be well. We were much later than we'd planned, much muddier than our friend would understand, and anxious to get back to our car again before they locked the gate behind us, but success would make it all worth while. Darkness was still a ways off, even if the gathering clouds hid the sun nearly as effectively.
My ankle became a concern. It had been a week and a half since I wrenched it. It had been improving steadily, but none of us was banking on it doing the job I was asking of it today. The water averaged calf-deep, and so did the muck. I was usually thigh-deep in muck and brown water before my feet found purchase, kicking and tripping the whole time over invisible, submerged logs of every shape and firmness. Sometimes I could stand on them, and sometimes I'd slide from them instead. Progress was measured in brown stumbles and hard towing, but progress we did. I'd very nearly decided not to wear an ankle brace for a quiet paddle down a lazy river. I was so glad to have erred toward caution this once. And I was glad for the cooling effect of the water to keep the swelling down.

In a final babble of promise, the water sped up. It was an exciting sign. The land was coming together and our channel deepening. Maybe our Shingle Creek passage would finally be complete, and we were about to join our river. We took hope.
The river presented us with another log, though, and this one too big to go over. We'd have to portage. Before we did that, I figured I'd walk ahead to see how much further the river really was.  I tried three paths. All were completely impassable. The portage wouldn't work.
Shingle Creek said, "No." Instead of triumphing, we'd stumble back through every turn and twist and log and slip. We were going back.
The clouds picked up on our mood and chose that minute to do what Florida clouds do. The drizzle gained heft and speed, and drowned our last flicker of hope. We both wear glasses, so the rain added a level of difficulty to our journey. Spotting the faded orange blazes was much more important now, and we had to see them without windshield wipers. Trying to stay in the boat whenever the lightning was especially close only added to the injuries already inflicted.
And now we were fighting the clock. Dark comes after 8:00, and we were well past 5:00. We'd been three hours getting so far with the current, and the way back would be harder to find. The way down was only a matter of sticking to the deepest water. The way back held two critical turns we knew we could miss.
There were no options. We started.
We rolled fifty or more of our orange blazes back up, the clock ticking faster than we could slog or paddle. Every single sighting of orange was a drama, but we kept finding them. And suddenly we didn't see any more. There'd been one confusing decision with an orange to our front and an orange to the left. We'd gone forward. A hundred yards later, we'd seen nothing but white/blue blazes. We were familiar with those, but orange had brung us, and it was orange we'd go home with. Back we went. We tracked left and were rewarded with a dozen more orange blazes, then they dried up, too.
We backtracked yet again to our last orange blaze and stopped. Cold. We had options aplenty, but it was 7:00, and the bewildering (today I notice "wilderness" is at the root of "bewilder") cypress didn't have that "I'm Tom Bodett, and we'll leave the lights on," kind of feeling. We didn't sense the welcome to spend our night amongst God's cypress knee armies. We were no more than a mile or two from our car, but we were an hour from dark and the odds we'd find the right path in that hour grew closer and closer to zero.
Each moment wasted on hesitation felt like a judgment day.
All the obvious thoughts came to mind. Quietly shivering all night in a damp kayak, crying uncle then waiting for the helicopter and floodlights, listening to our friends tell us how we should have been more prepared, several dozen Readers' Digest survival stories, alligators anywhere (along with snakes and untold bugs.) The mind is not always our best friend.
We decided.
It turns out my ancient BlackBerry actually does have a functioning GPS which the 911 operator can access. She calmly explained to us that at that very moment there was a cozy little subdivision just 150 yards to our West. We squinted as hard as we could to the West, and had to take her word for it. There was nothing but cypress to be seen, but we abandoned the kayak and struck off. She corrected our course to the left as we went, and 70 yards later we finally saw the first rooftop.
Cypress swamps are thick.

As near as I can tell, I've mapped our route at MapMyRide (choose Satellite view to see the cypress stand, and zoom out a bit to see where we were trying to go.) Your guess is frankly as good as ours where we stopped, but it was down there somewhere.
We ended up having to skirt a retention pond, but soon we were on manicured grass again. (My heart warmed a little bit toward manicured grass.) I went back, found, deflated, and hauled out the kayak. A friend came and drove us back to our car, and we headed back to the van with all our stuff. At 9:00 we did make it to the van just before the car died. Of course, that the car died was only appropriate after the day we'd had so far. The check engine light had been on for a day, but it was just an oxygen sensor warning - no big deal. I figured I'd get it to the shop on Tuesday, and we'd live with bad mileage until then. Not this time. This time we'd be transferring things to the van and leaving the car in the Publix parking lot until I could get back to it.
Three days later, we have the car back at home and running well. It was a cracked vacuum line that chose a quiet Sunday afternoon to finally break. The kayak seems no worse for wear, and we've found no ticks or spider bites to remind us of our adventure. I've got a little poison oak, but not enough to really trouble me. Time will have to tell whether our fancy Nikon d3100 survived the adventure, though. We're going to let it dry a bit longer before we put the battery back in.
I could not be more relieved things ended so easily. There were no sirens, no night in the swamp, and a story to tell for a long time.
Already I'm starting to look back on the trip fondly.

07 August, 2013

The Progress of Man Toward God

I've been thinking about this too long not to type a little something about it. I'm seeing the Bible as a journal of the progress of man toward God, and a very complete journal. It records God's coaching of us, and our attempts at carrying out our Coach's instructions. It comes complete with progressions and measurable progress.

And maybe a prediction of what comes next?

Let me give you some general headings, and see what you think.
  • Adam
    Adam had no idea how to get to God. He didn't even know it was hard. He didn't even know being like God was out of reach! He ignorantly set foot on the stage of life and tried to pull of a miracle by a little culinary adventure. I used to believe Adam would have been home-free had he only eaten from the Tree of Life, instead of from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. My current thinking is had Adam chosen the right afternoon snack he'd have had fewer setbacks in learning to reach God, but he'd still have had to learn.
  • Seth to Noah
    We're talking about a handful of chapters here. As nearly as I can tell, these people lived kind of like New-Agers think they can live now. They had some sort of confidence they could just walk with God and that was enough. And it was, for at least one guy. Enoch seemed to handle the freedom and responsibility pretty well. The rest of the world didn't do so well. We're all just thankful God found Noah and his family worthy of preserving.
  • Noah to Abraham
    There's even less information here than there was for the last group of people, but we know Melchizedek was leading some folk in worshipping God, and we know Job leaned heavily on the virtue of sacrifice. Basically, Noah probably didn't teach his sons a whole lot about worship, but people built on his memories and whatever direct revelation the Lord gave.
  • Abraham to Moses
    God speaks to Abraham and Abraham tells his sons what God said. So far as I know, the memory of walking with God like Enoch disappears from the Earth after Abraham. In its place is one couple and their miracle family. Through one son, then two, then twelve comes a nation of people who've heard from birth God makes promises to people. I don't see a lot of instruction here about how to reach God, but there's a real and amazing confidence God is reaching them. Here's a beginning
  • Moses
    Moses is the redwood tree of the Old Testament. God chose Moses to carry His instructions for worship to Abraham's family. The children of Israel's family learn from Moses how to gather together, how to sacrifice, how to celebrate, and how to say thanks. Whenever we study the Old Testament, we focus on the failures of Israel's family to reach God. Focus for a second on the fact they made a skilled effort. Remember whenever you think about this there was at all times a remnant of people successfully reaching God. Many people failed to follow Moses' instructions, but there was always someone "doing it right." From the time of Moses onward, there was always someone pleasing God by doing the things He sent Moses to teach.
  • Joshua - Samuel
    Yes, I see success here. After Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, the people of God got down to the business of living in their new world. God made promises to Abraham, and gave instructions to Moses. Now they were living in that fulfilled dream. They had motive and opportunity to know God. They found out it wasn't that easy. Clearing their lives of idolatry was even harder than clearing the land. Following the instructions of God required knowing those instructions, applying yourself daily, and genuine belief that the invisible God was worth knowing. People failed in droves, but there are some great success stories, too. The report is that every man did what was right in his own eyes, but some of them actually saw the Truth. By the end, the people truly did trust Samuel for a while, and the remnant always sought God.
  • David to Jehoiachin
    The kings over Israel (and later over the Northern and Southern divisions of Israel) upped the ante considerably. For starters, they got everyone on the same sheet of music. All Israel worshipped pretty much however the king worshipped. David doesn't quite have the stature of Moses, but he's cut from the same cloth. He loved God, heard instructions from Him, and obeyed them with all his heart. By the time Solomon was done, the people had a place to gather, a priesthood to mediate for them, and a clear picture in their mind what it was to be "the" peculiar people God was calling for. From David's day forward, the people had a vision of what it was to be Israel. The remaining Israelite kings led their people as well. The kings of the Northern Kingdom led them astray while the kings of the Southern Kingdom hit every extreme of loss and restoration. In every case, the vision burned a little more clearly in the eyes of the remnant few than in the days of the judges.
  • Ezra to Jesus
    And here we pass into the murky age, and into the age filled with treasures. I hope and pray your teaching has been more complete than mine, but I knew nothing of these last 500 years of the Old Testament. There's an upward transition from David to Jesus, and it's right here. Ezra was a stranger to me, but he stands almost as tall as Moses himself and Jesus' message would have been incomprehensible without him.

    Jesus could make of us a kingdom of priests because Ezra first transformed Israel into people under priests.

Have you ever noticed 1 and 2 Chronicles is a rerun of 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. There's a reason for that. The first history is told in the mindset of the kings. It tells how God made Israel great by making its kings great. The second history is told in the mindset of the priests and is rich with insights the kings never had - even as they were living the story out. It's a subtle but significant difference.

The twin books of Ezra and Nehemiah begin right where 2 Chronicles leaves off, and essentially become 3 Chronicles. They begin with Israel deeply separated from Yahweh after their best and brightest were carried captive to Babylon. God lived in a building in Jerusalem, and that building had been leveled. Judah's sin caused that disaster, so they had to regard their disaster as their own fault. Yahweh had made promises to Abraham, explained them to Moses, and fulfilled many of them in David, but He ploughed it all under when Israel refused to keep His covenant. God's people had no hope. The isolation was astronomical, hopeless.

But the people of Judah brought the Word of God with them to Babylon. They were separated from the land, the temple, the blessings, but those powerful words spoke into their abandonment. In the darkest of hours Daniel could consult the scrolls. So could Ezra. So could all the remnant.

From Adam to Jehoiachin "The Bible" is almost unmentioned in the Bible. Abraham had Yahweh's promise, but not one little page of The Bible. Moses wrote five books of The Bible, but he didn't start with a single page of it himself. David had Moses' five books and so did a few priests, but the people never heard more than an occasional reading from The Bible. They took their lead from David and his priests. Comfort and guidance came from the temple pageant and the knowledge God was with the king. We can hardly imagine relationship with God apart from His words, but The Bible was truly not central to Israel's spiritual life.

It was during the Babylonian captivity the synagogue system began. Desperate for any connection to God, the people discovered the consolation of the scriptures. They turned whole-heartedly to the scriptures and began to realize how rich and full their lives were with just them. They expected life without the temple to be empty, so the richness of scripture came as a delightful surprise. The synagogue became the place to gather and share the Word of God together.

It was in Babylon the Jewish religion became an individual one. During the time of the kings, Israel was a nation and its reality was whatever its king made of it. Each individual Jew saw himself as a part of Israel's whole, and Yahweh related to the nation. In Babylon, the people began to see Yahweh relating personally to each Jew. Israel could be in captivity for its sins, even while my relationship to Yahweh was healthy and rich.

It's also worth mentioning that from the day of Babylon until now, Israel's main problem was never again idolatry. Legalism, distorted mysticism, and worldliness weren't cured in Babylon, but curing idolatry is an amazing change.

By the time the second temple was completed, Israel was a stronger nation of God-followers than ever before. We focus on Israel's mistakes throughout the 39 books of the Old Testament, but we need to see their success. Following an invisible God is hard! Abraham's pupils were stronger than Noah's, Moses's than Abraham's, David's than Moses's, and Ezra's than David's. The people of Israel struggled, but they grew closer to God each time he revealed a little more about Himself. The nation of Israel fell and fell again, but they were a little higher each time they rose. And never forget the silent remnant received the Lord's commendation in every generation.

It should not be the shock it is to me when I see the Lord succeeded in all those generations, but it's a happy shock. And it makes me want to recalculate everything about how Jesus changed everything when He came.

08 February, 2013

Excel implementation of the Quadratic Formula

I know very few people who will find this interesting, but I'm one.

I'm teaching a little Algebra 2 this year, and I asserted to my students they'd never need to factor another quadratic equation if they implemented the quadratic formula within Microsoft Excel. For giggles, I decided to do it myself. It turned out to be more than a giggle's worth of effort.

I implemented it using 3 different formulas for each of the possible values of the discriminant (d>0, d=0, d<0 ). The work with the negative discriminant, of course, was the interesting stuff. IMPRODUCT, IMSUM, and IMPOWER were all new to me, and fun to see at work. It might make sense for me to reimplement the whole thing using IM functions, but I doubt I'll ever play with it again.

Anyway, Blogger doesn't allow me to upload arbitrary files like this (unless I name them .png or some such) so I can't post it out here. Drop me a comment if you want an ugly little notepad of an Excel spreadsheet that happens to be able to calculate any value for the quadratic formula.

Of course, if you're actually just interested in the roots of any given formula, you'll find Wolfram Alpha does ten times more than this little spreadsheet. The thought occurs to me to grow jealous and try to compete, but I'm not motivated enough.