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PAUL BOUTIN — Conferences suck. They're staged, cynical events whose true goal is to separate self-important fools from their money. So why did next year's TED sell out before this year's show began? You'll hate the answer.

The conference cottage industry went bust after the dot-com crash. Good riddance. Most confs are just marketing seminars under a different name. Attendees pay to listen to speakers who paid for the microphone. TED, as you'll hear all week, is different. It's not about selling software, it's about changing the world.

Oh, come on. The Poptech conf in Maine each fall has plenty of world-changing thought leaders, plus it takes itself a lot less seriously. But to outsiders, Poptech looks a lot like Yet Another Conference — here comes Lessig again!

What TED gives you for a few thousand bucks can be summed up by editing the conference coverage and the event's site down to proper nouns:

Al Gore ... Paul Simon ... Richard Branson ... Bill Clinton ... Phillipe Starck ... Kareem Andul-Jabbar ... James Randi ... Will Wright ... Tracy Chapman ... Isabel Allende ... They Might Be Giants

Even the nerds - E.O. Wilson, Murray Gell-Mann - are A-listers, as is sponsor BMW. New conference head Chris Anderson has reinvented TED as Davos Lite with more tech, less politics. Attendees pay to rub skin with the Clinton crowd, something they can't do in real life. They'll never get invited to Davos, but they can buy their way into TED. And if a wonky Swedish professor steps up and steals the show with slides about the developing world, that's just gravy.

I had to pass on this year's show because of an even more star-studded (to me) family event. But make no mistake: I hate conferences. And I'm already jockeying to get Wired's press pass for 2008. See you in Monterey - you're going, right?