Brexit, California Wildfires, Floppy Disks: Your Thursday Evening Briefing

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Good evening. Here’s the latest.

1. Boris Johnson is anteing up the Brexit stakes.

The British prime minister challenged lawmakers to approve a general election on Dec. 12, his latest effort to break the deadlock and throw Brexit back to voters.

He is expected to present his proposal to Parliament on Monday, and it would still require the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers. That would be difficult without support from the opposition Labour Party, which so far has reacted coolly to the prospect of a general election.

A win would give Mr. Johnson a popular mandate to carry out his vision of a swift departure from the E.U.

2. The freeze on nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was felt on the front lines, above.

President Trump has been accused of withholding the funding as part of a politically motivated pressure campaign against the Ukrainian government, a central piece of the impeachment investigation.

But in the trenches of Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists, which has left some 13,000 people dead, soldiers said the freeze took a more immediate toll, striking at their confidence that their backers in Washington stood solidly behind their fight.

In Europe, there’s a sense Mr. Trump’s recent actions in Ukraine and Syria could accelerate a process of peeling away from the United States, and a growing concern that he has destabilized the Continent’s near neighborhood in a fundamental way.

3. Fossil fuel companies were supposed to get a temporary tax break from Congress in 1995. But the wording of the bill actually made it permanent and has already cost the government $18 billion in lost revenue, according to a new report.

The misstep by lawmakers, originally intended to encourage drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, above, is expected to cost taxpayers for decades to come.

In other news from our Climate desk, new data shows that damaging air pollution has increased nationally since 2016, reversing a decades-long trend toward cleaner air.

4. What do the latest 2020 polls say? It’s hard to tell.

Just over three months before the first Democratic primary and caucus votes are cast, a pair of new national polls present starkly different results: A CNN survey showed former Vice President Joe Biden 15 percentage points ahead of Senator Elizabeth Warren, while a Quinnipiac University poll had Ms. Warren seven points ahead of Mr. Biden.

It’s not clear how the polls, both reputable, arrived at such divergent conclusions. But it may reflect that many respondents are not yet certain about their preferences.

And on college campuses, the share of students casting ballots doubled from 2014 to 2018, a sign that they could be a crucial bloc in the 2020 election. At the same time, Republican politicians around the country have been throwing up roadblocks between students and voting booths.

5. The Kincade fire is burning more than 10,000 acres in Northern California. High winds currently propelling the out-of-control blaze could become even stronger in the coming days.

This is the largest wildfire to ignite this week, and comes after three straight years of record-breaking fires that researchers say are likely to continue in a warming world. It raises an important question: How should people live in an ecosystem that is primed to burn?

“I think the perception is that we’re supposed to control them. But in a lot of cases we cannot,” one expert said. “And that may allow us to think a little bit differently about how we live with fire. We call it wildfire for reason — it’s not domesticated fire.”

6. The 39 people found dead in a refrigerated truck trailer near London on Wednesday are now believed to be Chinese citizens.

Eight of the dead are women and 31 are men, the police said. Each body will undergo a full coroner’s examination to identify the victim and establish the cause of death.

The case increasingly appears to be linked to human trafficking and bears a striking resemblance to a case in 2000, when 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in Dover.

7. Update complete: U.S. nuclear weapons no longer need floppy disks.

The Defense Department has transitioned away from a 1970s-era nuclear command and control system that relied on antiquated computer technology. The “modernizing” effort was quietly completed in June. Above, missile combat crew members at a missile alert facility in 2014.

The update is part of a broader overhaul of the U.S.’s atomic weapons that began under President Barack Obama and has continued under President Trump. But there was one upside to the old technology: Hackers can’t break into a floppy disk.

8. It’s been more than 50 years since Robert De Niro and Al Pacino first met. Today, they’re genuine friends who love to push each other’s buttons.

Their new film, “The Irishman,” is officially only the third time they have collaborated, but over the years they often turned to one another. Who else could understand?

“We get together and talk, compare notes,” Mr. De Niro said in an interview with Mr. Pacino. “Not quite miss each other. We might miss each other.”

9. Your daily dose of yuck and awe: a fungus that turns ants into zombies.

A new study details the life cycle of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps, and it’s like something from a sci-fi movie: It takes over an ant’s body, then its brain, then the ant explodes. Read more at your own risk.

And a team of paleontologists has uncovered a trove of thousands of fossils in Colorado that shows the world in which our mammalian forebears evolved into larger creatures. The finding provides insight into the interactions between animals, plants and climate that occurred in the earliest days of the age of mammals.

10. And finally, we may have reached peak witch.

Witches are seemingly everywhere — witch parties, witch protests, witch podcasts, witches in residence — and now in a bevy of new books. This fall, at least a dozen new witch books have or will hit the market — so many that Publishers Weekly has declared it “season of the witch.”

“I mean, I didn’t choose to write this book. It just came,” said Augusten Burroughs, whose new book, “Toil & Trouble,” tells the story of his own witchy coming-out. “And that tells me that something has been unlocked. It’s time. It is the moment somehow for witches to come out — in all their vibrant diversity.”

Have a spellbinding night.

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