Eventually, the numbers take on a life all their own, until they're no longer merely numbers at all.
Alexander Speer certainly knows this.
The county demographer, the answer man for politicians and decision-makers, power-brokers and developers, planners and deal-makers, iswell-acquainted with the numbers.
Often, they keep him up nights.
More times than he can count, Speer has kept the company of only the numbers -- save for an occasional visit from the building watchman -- until after midnight.
Often, the numbers go with him, on a floppy disc he pops into the personal computer at the Kent Island home where he lives with his wife and two children.
Ask him why, and you'll hear about numbers, but about a whole lot more, too:
Baby boom, baby bust, graying neighborhoods, jammed retirement housing, empty classrooms, packed schools, empty cells, overcrowded jails, jobs and the jobless, gridlocked intersections and houses going up and farms and woodlands forever disappearing.
This is the stuff of Speer's calling, sorting through and making sense of an avalanche of statistical data from Anne Arundel County beginning in the mid-1600s and ending somewhere around the year 2060 with a few long-shot predictions.
Taking a break from his talk of county megatrends, the soft-spoken 52-year-old whose head shows a bit of gray and a bit of balding does his best to explain the obsession.
"When you get into all these numbers, you never know what you'll uncover," he says. "It's incredibly interesting, incredibly fascinating. There's never a day that goes bythat something doesn't fascinate me."
His hands race through a box on the floor, and his eyes light up, as if he's just solved a mystery.
"Here, I'll give you a bunch of neat stuff," he says, flippingthrough a handful of reports.
Speer knows well the power of the numbers, after 21 years of looking to the future, most of it as a one-man show -- a second planner was hired only last year -- while surrounding counties expanded to staffs of a dozen or more.
He is acutely aware that what comes out of his crammed cubicle in the Riva Road Heritage office complex will go a long way toward deciding some of thebig questions. Those answers will help determine where the taxpayers' money goes; the fate of the dwindling open spaces; and some of the top priorities among developers, businesses, lawmakers, government planners, market researchers, police officials, educators and the library system.
Speer's days of late, and more than a few of his evenings, have been consumed by work on his third census.
For Speer, that means converting a bunch of disjointed numbers, about 4.5 million individual stats, into countless graphs, charts, tables, maps and explanatory material.
The result is as sought-after and accessible to planners and people with "Dr." in their titles as it is to the many callers who just want a single fact.
Callers have asked for stats and trends in housing prices, incomes, the county's horse population, how many prospective customers might shop in a neighborhood store andhow many "Wesorts" live in the area.
That last one used to throw him.
"Wesorts?" Speer remembers asking a caller. "I had to say, 'What's that? What's a Wesort?' "
Soon enough, he knew the numbers of Wesorts, that they shared a common last name, that this group from Southern Maryland claims white, black and Indian ancestry and lives in Prince George's and part of Anne Arundel County.
Speer does not take his numbers lightly.
"It's just an awesome responsibility," he says, "to get all that data into some usable form for people."
For more than two decades, he's done just that, starting at a time when Anne Arundel County's demographics consisted of a one-page stat sheet of "vital statistics."
Today, Speer, who makes about $51,000 annually, churns out some 10 comprehensive publications a year, all easy to read and understand.
The reports, constantly invoked by lobbyists, task-forces, educators, reporters, lawmakers and many others, offer up a healthy serving of stats.
As in: What bearing will future employment trends have on new housing? Booming employment contributes to new demand, which raised the median price of an Arundel house 46 percent between 1985 and 1989, to $121,217.
How will profound population changes affect public programs and public priorities? The "baby bust," those now between the ages of 25 to 35, emptied schools, reduced unemployment and heightened demand for more affordable housing. Ditto, to a lesser degree, for the baby boomlets, those born after1976.
Somehow, Speer makes sense of all the numbers.
Three decades ago, he studied premed, math and physics at Bethany College in West Virginia and Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, then weighed going to work for Proctor & Gamble's marketing department.
"ButI didn't wanna sell soap chips," he says. "I thought, 'what I reallywanna do is run a physics laboratory.' "
Instead, after serving as a planner in Pittsburgh, an aeronautical map-maker for Defense Department planners and a cartographer, Speer settled into another lab ofsorts in 1969.
Today, it's filled with printouts, charts, graphs,piles of reports, index-card boxes full of key information and floppy discs full of much more.
Chances are, whatever you're looking for, if it concerns Anne Arundel County and it can be measured, Speer will find you the numbers -- and much more.