Your Wednesday Briefing – The New York Times

Britain on Tuesday began a fiendishly difficult mass vaccination program, as select individuals received some of the world’s first shots of a clinically authorized, fully tested vaccine in the long, painstaking campaign to knock back a disease that has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide.

Those first recipients included older Britons and hundreds of health workers. For them, the shots offered a peek at life after Covid-19, replete with plans for rescheduled wedding anniversaries and bus trips to the seaside.

But any such fantasies were tempered by the bleak winter ahead, with the virus still spreading and claiming, on average, more than 400 lives a day in Britain. A country of 67 million has only enough doses now for 400,000 people. It will be months before shots are given to enough Britons, much less to enough people in poorer countries with scarce access to vaccines, that life can start returning to normal.

Quotable: “I feel so privileged to be the first person vaccinated against Covid-19,” said Margaret Keenan, 90, who got the first shot. “It means I can finally look forward to spending time with my family and friends in the new year after being on my own for most of the year.”

For weeks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain has played an extreme version of hardball over Brexit, threatening to break international law and renege on a treaty he signed with the European Union if it fails to strike a new trade agreement with him soon.

Mr. Johnson dropped that threat yesterday, raising hopes that a more diplomatic approach could yield a breakthrough in talks planned for Wednesday with Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission.

In a statement, Britain agreed to remove parts of legislation that would have allowed the government to override aspects of a landmark Brexit withdrawal agreement designed to avoid the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain a member of the European Union.

Analysis: “Boris Johnson has solved a problem he created,” said David Henig, from the European Center for International Political Economy, a research institute. “On balance, it is now more likely that there is a mood to go and strike a trade deal than not, even if it is too early to say that for sure.”

This year’s Arctic Report Card, an annual assessment by an international panel of scientists, warned that drastic changes to the Arctic climate are well underway as the region is heating up more than twice as fast as other parts of the planet.

That warming has cascading effects elsewhere, raising sea levels, influencing ocean circulation and, scientists increasingly suggest, playing a role in extreme weather.

This year, the minimum extent of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, reached at the end of the melt season in September, was the second-lowest in the satellite record, while permafrost continued to thaw and erode along Arctic coastlines, leaving Indigenous communities struggling to cope with damaged infrastructure.

Dire warnings: “Nearly everything in the Arctic, from ice and snow to human activity, is changing so quickly that there is no reason to think that in 30 years much of anything will be as it is today,” said one of the editors of the assessment.

Barack Obama’s memoir “A Promised Land” is both a historical account of his time as president and an introspective self-portrait. The Times’s former chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, interviewed Mr. Obama about how his reading and writing shaped his thinking.

Mr. Obama wrote his first draft on yellow legal pads, doing his best work between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. His writing was the culmination of years of inspiration from literature, he said: “When I think about how I learned to write, who I mimicked, the voice that always comes to mind the most is James Baldwin.”

Cybersecurity: FireEye, a top cybersecurity firm, said its digital tool kit had been stolen from a closely guarded digital vault by hackers — almost certainly Russian — enabling them to mount new attacks anywhere.

Indian farmer protests: Opposition figures say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is cracking down on them for supporting protests against new agricultural policies.

Snapshot: Above, customers lucky enough to get Christmas trees in Barrie, Ontario, on Saturday. Christmas trees are selling out in Canada, in the U.S. and across Europe as people stuck at home in lockdown — without the family gatherings, parties and group dinners of a typical holiday season — try to shoehorn some joy into their lives.

‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ award: Editors of the Literary Review will not deliver a winner this year, on the grounds that the public has been “subjected to too many bad things this year to justify exposing it to bad sex as well.”

Grubby pandas: In a new paper, researchers in China reveal the results of a decade-long investigation into why giant pandas smear their bodies with mounds and mounds of horse manure. The behavior may help the pandas tolerate cold temperatures, scientists found, because of a compound in horse dung that counteracts pandas’ sensitivity to chills.

What we’re reading: This feature in Outside magazine revealing the identity of the man who found the famed and much sought after Fenn treasure. It’s a wild ride, with one unexpected twist after the next.

Cook: This buttermilk marble cake is tender and moist, and a breeze to put together. And its cream cheese chocolate frosting is a revelation.

Watch: “Another Round,” a sweet, strangely modest Danish tragicomedy about the pleasures of (mostly banal) excess.

Do: Pretend you’re in Dakar. It’s impossible to fully experience the West African city without making the trip, but our travel writers have come up with ways to capture at least a sliver of the magic.

Staying busy and entertained at home is a piece of cake with our At Home collection of ideas on what to read, cook, watch, and do while staying safe indoors.

Dean Baquet, The Times’s executive editor, believes that 2020 will go down as a signature year in history, alongside years like 1968, 1945 and 1868.

“It will long be remembered and studied as a time when more than 1.5 million people globally died during a pandemic, racial unrest gripped the world and democracy itself faced extraordinary tests,” he writes, in the introduction to The Times’s annual Year in Pictures feature.

Below is a (very) limited selection of some of these extraordinary photographs. Check out the full array here — and, as you do, ask yourself which images from this deeply unusual year have stuck with you.

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