What to watch for in the weeks ahead


Breaking in the New Court

If John Roberts is confirmed, lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court will find themselves in unfamiliar waters when the new session begins today. Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in many cases involving abortion, affirmative action, federalism, and religion, but her retirement makes moot the strategy of tailoring legal arguments to persuade her. A host of contentious cases involving the death penalty, abortion, and gays in the military are on the docket.


It's a Long Way to Brussels

Today Turkey begins negotiations for its long-sought entry into the European Union. Simply getting to this point is a victory of sorts, but Turkey's prospects for membership remain dim. Doubts about admitting its huge, poor, and predominantly Muslim population into the EU played a role in French voters' recent scuttling of the EU constitution, and the Germans appear similarly skeptical. Under EU rules any member can block admittance, including Turkey's longtime nemesis, Cyprus. The rosiest scenario predicts that Turkish membership is at least ten years off.


Hockey Returns

Last year hockey became the first North American sport to sacrifice an entire season in a contract dispute, but the National Hockey League returns this week with new rules to spice up what many believe had become an icy tedium. Among the changes: shootouts will decide tie games, and goalies will have less-bulky equipment. The NHL faces an uphill battle: ESPN, long its TV home, has declined to broadcast the season since discovering that some of last year's replacement programming—college basketball and a poker drama—earned higher ratings than hockey.


The Pentagon's Robot Race

Today off-road vehicles built by assorted private companies, academic teams, high school students, and basement tinkerers attempt to steer, unmanned, through 175 miles of obstacle-laden desert in under ten hours, as part of a Pentagon-sponsored contest. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's second annual Grand Challenge is intended to spur the development of autonomous vehicles that will keep soldiers from the peril of navigating battlefields. The prize for the fastest time has been doubled, to $2 million, although simply completing the course would be impressive enough: in last year's race all fifteen participants flipped, crashed, or foundered in the first seven miles.


Unhand That Yuan

The next salvo in the United States' currency fight with China is expected today, when the Treasury Department issues its report to Congress on foreign currency practices. The last report, in May, warned that if China didn't ease its controls on the yuan, which has been pegged to the dollar since 1994, it would be officially branded a "manipulator," triggering U.S. measures to bring its currency back in line. China subsequently severed its currency from the dollar, but critics say the cheapened yuan still unfairly puts the United States in hock to China by keeping the price of Chinese imports artificially low. Two senators have found bipartisan support for a measure that would impose a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese imports across the board if China does not allow market forces to continue to raise the value of the yuan.


Constitutional Referendum in Iraq

Iraqis are scheduled to head to the polls today to give an up or down vote on a constitution—the second of three votes to establish a sovereign government. If the constitution is approved by more than two thirds of Iraqis, elections for the final government will take place December 15. If it fails, the process will begin again from square one with elections for a new transitional government on the same date. Kurds in the north are concerned about losing regional autonomy under the new government, and influential Sunni leaders remain split on whether to sit out the referendum; Sunnis largely boycotted the first vote, in January.


Korean Stem-Cell Bank Opens

South Korea today increases its global lead in stem-cell research by opening the world's first stem-cell bank, in Seoul. Hwang Woo-suk, the professor behind the bank, last year be-came the first to successfully clone human embryos and extract stem cells. In August his laboratory announced another breakthrough: the first cloned dog.


Deadline for Smart Passports

Starting today, all new passports from countries whose citizens don't need visas to visit the United States must include digital photos as part of a plan to reduce counterfeiting. (Old passports will still be accepted.) The twenty-seven nations in the visa-waiver program, including most of Europe, must also submit plans to shift to "e-passports," which contain biometric data embedded in a small chip, by this date next year. Critics claim that the chips, which can be read from a short distance, might make it easier for bad guys to snatch identities.