Economist Veronique de Rugy is on a first-name basis with bigwigs at the Department of Homeland Security, an agency she has been tormenting for the last two years. "They think I'm a horrible pain in the ass," she comments. A one-woman army against wasteful spending, De Rugy has sparred with the department's bureaucrats in the halls of Congress, on numerous op-ed pages, and at her headquarters, the American Enterprise Institute. In this month's cover story ("Are We Ready for the Next 9/11?," page 24), De Rugy asks why homeland security money is buying new exercise equipment for New Jersey firefighters and a defibrillator for a Tennessee high school. She looks forward to another round of infuriated e-mails, op-eds, and phone calls from her friends in Washington.

Devotees of Tim Harford's "Dear Economist" column in the Financial Times know he has a knack for lending an economist's objectivity to deeply personal issues. (A December questioner frets: "I only really fancy my girlfriend after I've had a few drinks. Is this relationship worth pursuing?") So it's no surprise that Harford's recent trip to Cameroon, where he traveled to research his book The Undercover Economist (excerpted this month on page 32), had a deeply personal outcome: Harford proposed to his girlfriend on the summit of the 14,000-foot Mount Cameroon. "She asked me if I was joking," he says, "and we celebrated with some boil-in-the-bag noodles."

As a semiotic brand analyst, A.S. Hamrah teases hidden meanings from the objects we buy. As a cultural critic, he does the same with the entertainment we consume. In this issue he does both, penning an analysis of movies that obsess over the morbidly obese ("Fat Suit Chic," page 55) and dishing out some semiotics expertise in Kerry Howley's feature about Fair Trade coffee ("Absolution in Your Cup," page 40). A prolific critic, Hamrah has published articles in The Baffler, The Boston Globe, Hermenaut, Newsday, and Suck, among other outlets.