ThinkFast: December 18, 2006

Iraq’s schools, “long touted by American officials as a success story,” increasingly are “caught in the crossfire of the country’s escalating civil war.” Across the country, “campuses are being shuttered” as teachers tell of “students kidnapped on their way to school, mortar rounds landing on or near campuses and educators shot in front of children.”

Robert Gates was sworn in this morning as secretary of defense in a private event at the White House, and later will attend a public swearing-in ceremony at the Pentagon. He says he intends to travel to Iraq “very soon.”

Though U.S. employees at Wal-Mart have been blocked from unionizing, “Wal-Mart’s China headquarters have set up a Communist Party branch” after the state-sanctioned labor body successfully set up a union earlier this year.

$5.4 billion: The amount CEO’s from America’s 500 biggest companies earned last year, a 6 percent raise from the previous year. See who the Top 25 earners were here.

Gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms kidnapped an estimated 28 people from the Baghdad offices of the Red Crescent humanitarian group on Sunday. Three U.S. soldiers died over the weekend, bringing December’s toll “to at least 57, on pace to surpass the 69 tallied in November.”

Authorities at the Guantanamo Bay detention facilityhave clamped down decisively in recent months,” reversing a plan “to ease the conditions under which more than 400 men are imprisoned here, nearly all of them without having been charged.”

“For 20 million years, the white-fin dolphin, or baiji, swam China’s longest river, the Yangtze. But a few years of breakneck development, overfishing and a massive increase in shipping have reduced sightings of this shy, graceful creature to zero.” Scientists believe it is “the first big aquatic mammal to become extinct due to human activity.”

“The U.S. Forest Service no longer will give close environmental scrutiny to its long-term plans for America’s national forests and grasslands” or “allow the public to appeal on long-term plans for those forests.”

“Among administration officials, Congress, U.S. allies and other interested and fearful parties, there is a rising sense that Somalia is spinning rapidly out of control.” Al Qaeda has “established itself as a presence in the Somali capital,” and a “major war…looms between Somalia and Ethiopia.”

“High-ranking Democrats set to take control of both chambers are mulling ways to curb” President Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program, as “experts say a new Congress’ efforts to limit the program could trigger a constitutional showdown.”

And finally: The news we’ve all been waiting for — why Tucker ditched the bowtie. Tucker Carlson, “host of MSNBC’s Tucker and a brief contestant on Dancing With the Stars, has gone traditional. ‘I ditched the bow tie for the same reason most men make profound life decisions: on a whim,’ he says. ‘After 20 years I was looking for a change, and the bolo tie just didn’t feel right.'”

What did we miss? Let us know in the comments section.