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Dry facts transformed in entertainment

America is the world's largest consumer of energy - its 280 million citizens using more than the 3.1 billion people in India, the Middle East, South America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Oceania combined. Andorra has no income taxes, no unemployment, no broadcast television stations, and the world's longest life expectancy (coincidence?) at 83.48 years. Canada has more coastline than any country on the planet, and South Africa boasts 11 official languages. All this and more can be found at NationMaster - and while the name might sound like a promising moniker for Superman's next arch enemy, it's actually a statistical treasure trove with everything you never knew you wanted to know about the world's numbers.

Launched this past May, NationMaster is a worthy addition to the likes of Harper's Index and other such collections of dry facts transformed into entertainment - with the added attraction that this collection can also be of genuine use to teachers, students, journalists and anyone else with a serious interest in the planet's statistical makeup. And whether you find your visit to be useful or entertaining (or both), you can give at least some of the credit to the CIA. NationMaster was created after developer Luke Metcalfe spent some time snooping around the CIA's popular World Factbook website, when he decided that while interesting, the Factbook's facts would have more impact if presented visually and in comparison with other countries. After digesting the CIA's information, Metcalfe started giving the same treatment to statistics from other sources, and the result is an online database of more than 500 statistical comparisons. (505 at time of writing, and growing fast.)

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The marquee feature of the site is the ability for visitors to instantly generate graphs and numerical tables for any of the available data sets. Using hierarchical pull-down menus to set criteria for countries, categories and specific subjects, surfers can access results for every nation measured - or choose from various 'highest' or 'lowest' number subsets. When requested, a new page is created with the desired table and a selection of related statistics, while the pull-down interface retains the previous page's settings so that visitors can easily create incremental variations on each new result.

If you don't arrive with any specific questions, NationMaster offers an assortment of pre-selected Top Graphs, linking surfers directly to such tidbits as Christmas Island's tally of 1.3 televisions for each citizen, or the Vatican's tax revenues of $232,888.89 per person. For those with a general field of interest, selected Categories (Crime, Economy, Sports) permit topical browsing. Every page is topped with one in a series of rotating "Factoids," and for those primarily on a trivia quest, the best place to start is the full Factoids collection at the Interesting Facts page. Here, you'll find stats ranging from the not-terribly surprising ("The United States spends more money on its military than the next 12 nations combined"), to the...helpful?... ("Senior gentlemen might consider a trip to Russia where there [are] two over 65 women for every man"), to the simply odd ("South Korea is the heliport capital of the world"). Recent additions (such as projected population growth rates to 2050) are tracked on the homepage and through an e-mail newsletter, while profiles, maps and flags of individual countries complement raw numbers with the wider geopolitical context.

As is frequently the case with such information, data can be a few years old (few, if any, countries hold a census every year), but it's unlikely that major overnight upheavals have shifted many of the ordinals. The source for each set of statistics is posted at the bottom of each table (so visitors can make their own estimates of credibility), as are definitions of the data being measured, and one-click options to resample the results on display.

Even after a thorough exploration, Nationmaster is one of those sites that even non-statisticians can profit from keeping in their Bookmarks. Like online dictionaries and encyclopedias, every once in a while some question, debate or morsel of news will arise which will have you returning for either a definitive answer or additional facts. And like those other sites, NationMaster can take you straight to the information you need. Nationmaster can be found at