Dynamics of the last Twinkie

When Hostess went bankrupt in 2012, there was lots of speculation about the fate of the last Twinkie, perhaps languishing on the dusty shelves of a gas station convenience store somewhere in New Mexico. Would that take ten days, ten weeks, ten years?

So, what does this have to do with system dynamics? It calls to mind the problem of modeling the inventory stockout constraint on sales. This problem dates back to Industrial Dynamics (see the variable NIR driving SSR and the discussion around figs. 15-5 and 15-7).

If there’s just one product in one inventory (i.e. one store), and visibility doesn’t matter, the constraint is pretty simple. As long as there’s one item left, sales or shipments can proceed. The constraint then is:

(1) selling = MIN(desired selling, inventory/time step)

In other words, the most that can be sold in one time step is the amount of inventory that’s actually on hand. Generically, the constraint looks like this:

Here, tau is a time constant, that could be equal to time step (DT), as above, or could be generalized to some longer interval reflecting handling and other lags.

This can be further generalized to some kind of continuous function, like:

(2) selling = desired selling * f( inventory )

where f() is often a lookup table. This can be a bit tricky, because you have to ensure that f() goes to zero fast enough to obey the inventory/DT constraint above.

But what if you have lots of products and/or lots of inventory points, perhaps with different normal turnover rates? How does this aggregate? I built the following toy model to find out. You could easily do this in Vensim with arrays, but I found that it was ideally suited to Ventity.

Here’s the setup:

First, there’s a collection of Store entities, each with an inventory. Initial inventory is random, with a Poisson distribution, which ensures integer twinkies. Customer arrivals also have a Poisson distribution, and (optionally), the mean arrival rate varies by store. Selling is constrained to stock on hand via inventory/DT, and is also subject to a visibility effect – shelf stock influences the probability that a customer will buy a twinkie (realized with a Binomial distribution). The visibility effect saturates, so that there are diminishing returns to adding stock, as occurs when new stock goes to the back rows of the shelf, for example.

In addition, there’s an Aggregate entitytype, which is very similar to the Store, but deterministic and continuous.

The Aggregate’s initial inventory and sales rates are set to the expected values for individual stores. Two different kinds of constraints on the inventory outflow are available: inventory/tau, and f(inventory). The sales rate simplifies to:

(3) selling = min(desired sales rate*f(inventory),Inventory/Min time to sell)

(4) min time to sell >= time step

In the Store and the Aggregate, the nonlinear effect of inventory on sales (called visibility in the store) is given by

(5) f(inventory) = 1-Exp(-Inventory/Threshold)

However, the aggregate threshold might be different from the individual store threshold (and there’s no compelling reason for the aggregate f() to match the individual f(); it was just a simple way to start).

In the Store[] collection, I calculate aggregates of the individual stores, which look quite continuous, even though the population is only 100. (There are over 100,000 gas stations in the US.)

Notice that the time series behavior of the effect of inventory on sales is sigmoid.

Now we can compare individual and aggregate behavior:



The noisy yellow line is the sum of the individual Stores. The blue line arises from imposing a hard cutoff, equation (1) above. This is like assuming that all stores are equal, and inventory doesn’t affect sales, until it’s gone. Clearly it’s not a great fit, though it might be an adequate shortcut where inventory dynamics are not really the focus of a model.

The red line also imposes an inventory/tau constraint, but the time constant (tau) is much longer than the time step, at 8 days (time step = 1 day). Finally, the purple sigmoid line arises from imposing the nonlinear f(inventory) constraint. It’s quite a good fit, but the threshold for the aggregate must be about twice as big as for the individual Stores.

However, if you parameterize f() poorly, and omit the inventory/tau constraint, you get what appear to be chaotic oscillations – cool, but obviously unphysical:

If, in addition, you add diversity in Store’s customer arrival rates, you get a longer tail on inventory. That last Twinkie is likely to be in a low-traffic outlet. This makes it a little tougher to fit all parts of the curve:

I think there are some interesting questions here, that would make a great paper for the SD conference:

  • (Under what conditions) can you derive the functional form of the aggregate constraint from the properties of the individual Stores?
  • When do the deficiencies of shortcut approaches, that may lack smooth derivatives, matter in aggregate models like Industrial dynamics?
  • What are the practical implications for marketing models?
  • What can you infer about inventory levels from aggregate data alone?
  • Is that really chaos?

Have at it!

The Ventity model: LastTwinkie1.zip

Forrester on Continuous Flows

I just published three short videos with sample models, illustrating representation of discrete and random events in Vensim.

Jay Forrester‘s advice from Industrial Dynamics is still highly relevant. Here’s an excerpt:

Chapter 5, Principles for Formulating Models

5.5 Continuous Flows

In formulating a model of an industrial operation, we suggest that the system be treated, at least initially, on the basis of continuous flows and interactions of the variables. Discreteness of events is entirely compatible with the concept of information-feedback systems, but we must be on guard against unnecessarily cluttering our formulation with the detail of discrete events that only obscure the momentum and continuity exhibited by our industrial systems.

In beginning, decisions should be formulated in the model as if they were continuously (but not implying instantaneously) responsive to the factors on which they are based. This means that decisions will not be formulated for intermittent reconsideration each week, month or year. For example, factory production capacity would vary continuously, not by discrete additions. Ordering would go on continuously, not monthly when the stock records are reviewed.

There are several reasons for recommending the initial formulation of a continuous model:

  • Real systems are more nearly continuous than is commonly supposed …
  • There will usually be considerable “aggregation” …
  • A continuous-flow system is usually an effective first approximation …
  • There is a natural tendency of model builders and executives to overstress the discontinuities of real situations. …
  • A continuous-flow model helps to concentrate attention on the central framework of the system. …
  • As a starting point, the dynamics of the continuous-flow model are usually easier to understand …
  • A discontinuous model, which is evaluated at infrequent intervals, such as an economic model solved for a new set of values annually, should never by justified by the fact that data in the real system have been collected at such infrequent intervals. …

These comments should never be construed as suggesting that the model builder should lack interest in the microscopic separate events that occur in a continuous-flow channel. The course of the continuous flow is the course of the separate events in it. By studying individual events we get a picture of how decisions are made and how the flows are delayed. The study of individual events is on of our richest sources of information about the way the flow channels of the model should be constructed. When a decision is actually being made regularly on a periodic basis, like once a month, the continuous-flow equivalent channel should contain a delay of half the interval; this represents the average delay encountered by information in the channel.

The preceding comments do not imply that discreteness is difficult to represent, nor that it should forever be excluded from a model. At times it will become significant. For example, it may create a disturbance that will cause system fluctuations that can be mistakenly interreted as externally generated cycles (…). When a model has progressed to the point where such refinements are justified, and there is reason to believe that discreteness has a significant influence on system behavior, discontinuous variables should then be explored to determine their effect on the model.

[Ellipses added – see the original for elaboration.]

Early warnings of catastrophe

Catastrophic Collapse Can Occur without Early Warning: Examples of Silent Catastrophes in Structured Ecological Models (PLOS ONE – open access)

Catastrophic and sudden collapses of ecosystems are sometimes preceded by early warning signals that potentially could be used to predict and prevent a forthcoming catastrophe. Universality of these early warning signals has been proposed, but no formal proof has been provided. Here, we show that in relatively simple ecological models the most commonly used early warning signals for a catastrophic collapse can be silent. We underpin the mathematical reason for this phenomenon, which involves the direction of the eigenvectors of the system. Our results demonstrate that claims on the universality of early warning signals are not correct, and that catastrophic collapses can occur without prior warning. In order to correctly predict a collapse and determine whether early warning signals precede the collapse, detailed knowledge of the mathematical structure of the approaching bifurcation is necessary. Unfortunately, such knowledge is often only obtained after the collapse has already occurred.

This is a third-order ecological model with juvenile and adult prey and a predator:

See my related blog post on the topic, in which I also mention a generic model of critical slowing down.

The model, with changes files (.cin) implementing some of the experiments: CatastropheWarning.zip

Stochastic Processes

This model replicates a number of the stochastic processes from Dixit & Pindyck’s Investment Under Uncertainty. It includes Brownian motion (Wiener process), geometric Brownian motion, mean-reverting and jump processes, plus forecast confidence bounds for some variations.

Units balance, but after updating this model I’ve decided that there may be a conceptual issue, related to the interpretation of units in parameters of the Brownian process variants. This arises due to the fact that the parameter sigma represents the standard deviation at unit time, and that some of the derivations gloss over units associated with substitutions of dz=epsilon*SQRT(dt). I don’t think these are of practical importance, but will revisit the question in the future. This is what happens when you let economists get hold of engineers’ math. 🙂

These structures would be handy if made into :MACRO:s for reuse.

stochastic processes 3.mdl (requires an advanced version of Vensim)

stochastic processes 3.vpm (published package; includes a sensitivity setup for varying NOISE SEED)

stochastic processes 3 PLE.mdl (Runs in PLE, omits only one equation of low importance)

Polya urn with increasing returns

This set of models performs a variant of a Polya urn experiment, along the lines of that described in Bryan Arthur’s Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy, Chapter 10. There’s a small difference, which is that samples are drawn with replacement (Bernoulli distribution) rather than without (hypergeometric distribution).

The interesting dynamics arise from competing positive feedback loops through the stocks of red and white balls. There’s useful related reading at http://tuvalu.santafe.edu/~wbarthur/Papers/Papers.html

I did the physical version of this experiment with Legos with my kids:

I tried the Polya urns experiment over lunch. We put 5 red and 5 white legos in a bowl, then took turns drawing a sample of 5. We returned the sample to the bowl, plus one lego of whichever color dominated the sample. Iterate. At the start, and after 2 or 3 rounds, I solicited guesses about what would happen. Gratifyingly, the consensus was that the bowl would remain roughly evenly divided between red and white. After a few more rounds, the reality began to diverge, and we stopped when white had a solid 2:1 advantage. I wondered aloud whether using a larger or smaller sample would lead to faster convergence. With no consensus about the answer, we tried it – drawing samples of just 1 lego. I think the experimental outcome was somewhat inconclusive – we quickly reached dominance of red, but the sampling process was much faster, so it may have actually taken more rounds to achieve that. There’s a lot of variation possible in the outcome, which means that superstitious learning is a possible trap.

This model automates the experiment, which makes it easier and more reliable to explore questions like the sensitivity of the rate of divergence to the sample size.


This version works with Vensim PLE (though it’s not supposed to, because it uses the RANDOM BERNOULLI function). It performs a single experiment per run, but includes sensitivity control files for performing hundreds of runs at a time (requires PLE Plus). That makes for a nice map of outcomes:

Continue reading “Polya urn with increasing returns”

Delay Sandbox

There’s a handy rule of thumb for estimating how much of the input to a first order delay has propagated through as output: after three time constants, 95%. (This is the same as the rule for estimating how much material has left a stock that is decaying exponentially – about a 2/3 after one lifetime, 85% after two, 95% after three, and 99% after five lifetimes.)

I recently wanted rules of thumb for other delay structures (third order or higher), so I built myself a simple model to facilitate playing with delays. It uses Vensim’s DELAY N function, to make it easy to change the delay order.

Here’s the structure:

Continue reading “Delay Sandbox”

Cumulative Normal Distribution

Vensim doesn’t have a function for the cumulative normal distribution, but it’s easy to implement via a macro. I used to use a polynomial cited in Numerical Recipes (error function, Ch. 6.2):

NCDF = 1-Complementary Normal CDF
~	dmnl
~		|
Complementary Normal CDF=
~	dmnl
~		|
ERFCy = IF THEN ELSE(y>=0,ans,2-ans)
~	dmnl
~	http://www.library.cornell.edu/nr/bookcpdf/c6-2.pdf
y = x/sqrt(2)
~	dmnl
~		|
~	dmnl
~		|
~	dmnl
~		|
z = ABS(y)
~	dmnl
~		|

I recently discovered a better approximation here, from algorithm 26.2.17 in Abromowitz and Stegun, Handbook of Mathematical Functions:

NCDF2 =  IF THEN ELSE(x >= 0,
(1 - c * exp( -x * x / 2 ) * t *
( t *( t * ( t * ( t * b5 + b4 ) + b3 ) + b2 ) + b1 )),  ( c * exp( -x * x / 2 ) * t *
( t *( t * ( t * ( t * b5 + b4 ) + b3 ) + b2 ) + b1 ))
~     dmnl
~     From http://www.sitmo.com/doc/Calculating_the_Cumulative_Normal_Distribution
Implements algorithm 26.2.17 from Abromowitz and Stegun, Handbook of Mathematical 
Functions. It has a maximum absolute error of 7.5e^-8.
c  =  0.398942
~     dmnl
~           |
t = IF THEN ELSE( x >= 0, 1/(1+p*x), 1/(1-p*x))
~     dmnl
~           |
b5 =  1.33027
~     dmnl
~           |
b4 = -1.82126
~     dmnl
~           |
b3 =  1.78148
~     dmnl
~           |
b2 = -0.356564
~     dmnl
~           |
b1 =  0.319382
~     dmnl
~           |
p  =  0.231642
~     dmnl
~           |

In advanced Vensim versions, paste the macro into the header of your model (View>As Text). Otherwise, you can implement the equations inside the macro directly in your model.

Rental car stochastic dynamics

This is a little experimental model that I developed to investigate stochastic allocation of rental cars, in response to a Vensim forum question.

There’s a single fleet of rental cars distributed around 50 cities, connected by a random distance matrix (probably not physically realizable on a 2D manifold, but good enough for test purposes). In each city, customers arrive at random, rent a car if available, and return it locally or in another city. Along the way, the dawdle a bit, so returns are essentially a 2nd order delay of rentals: a combination of transit time and idle time.

The two interesting features here are:

  • Proper use of Poisson arrivals within each time step, so that car flows are dimensionally consistent and preserve the integer constraint (no fractional cars)
  • Use of Vensim’s ALLOC_P/MARKETP functions to constrain rentals when car availability is low. The usual approach, setting actual = MIN(desired, available/TIME STEP), doesn’t work because available is subscripted by 50 cities, while desired has 50 x 50 origin-destination pairs. Therefore the constrained allocation could result in fractional cars. The alternative approach is to set up a randomized first-come, first-served queue, so that any shortfall preserves the integer constraint.

The interesting experiment with this model is to lower the fleet until it becomes a constraint (at around 10,000 cars).

Documentation is sparse, but units balance.

Requires an advanced Vensim version (for arrays).

carRental.vpm carRental.vmf

Pink Noise

In a continuous time dynamic model, representing noise as a random draw at every time step can be problematic. As the time step is decreased, the high frequency power of the noise spectrum increases accordingly, potentially changing the behavior. In the limit of small time steps, the resulting white noise has infinite power, which is not physically realistic.

The solution is to use pink noise, which is essentially white noise filtered to cut off high frequencies. SD models from the bad old days typically employed a pink noise generating structure that employed uniformly distributed white noise, relying on the central limit theorem to yield a normally distributed output. Ed Anderson improved that structure to incorporate a normally distributed input, which works better, especially if the cutoff frequency is close to the inverse of the time step.

Two versions of the model are attached: one for advanced versions of Vensim, which permit implementation as a :MACRO:, for efficient reuse. The other works with Vensim PLE.

PinkNoise2010.mdl PinkNoise2010.vmf PinkNoise2010.vpm

PinkNoise2010-PLE.vmf PinkNoise2010-PLE.vpm

Contributed by Ed Anderson, updated by Tom Fiddaman

Notes (also in the model files):

Description: The pink noise molecule described generates a simple random series with autocorrelation. This is useful in representing time series, like rainfall from day to day, in which today’s value has some correlation with what happened yesterday. This particular formulation will also have properties such as standard deviation and mean that are insensitive both to the time step and the correlation (smoothing) time. Finally, the output as a whole and the difference in values between any two days is guaranteed to be Gaussian (normal) in distribution.

Behavior: Pink noise series will have both a historical and a random component during each period. The relative “trend-to-noise” ratio is controlled by the length of the correlation time. As the correlation time approaches zero, the pink noise output will become more independent of its historical value and more “noisy.” On the other hand, as the correlation time approaches infinity, the pink noise output will approximate a continuous time random walk or Brownian motion. Displayed above are two time series with correlation times of 1 and 8 months. While both series have approximately the same standard deviation, the 1-month correlation time series is less smooth from period to period than the 8-month series, which is characterized by “sustained” swings in a given direction. Note that this behavior will be independent of the time-step. The “pink” in pink noise refers to the power spectrum of the output. A time series in which each period’s observation is independent of the past is characterized by a flat or “white” power spectrum. Smoothing a time series attenuates the higher or “bluer” frequencies of the power spectrum, leaving the lower or “redder” frequencies relatively stronger in the output.

Caveats: This assumes the use of Euler integration with a time step of no more than 1/4 of the correlation time. Very long correlation times should be avoided also as the multiplication in the scaled white noise will become progressively less accurate.

Technical Notes: This particular form of pink noise is superior to that of Britting presented in Richardson and Pugh (1981) because the Gaussian (Normal) distribution of the output does not depend on the Central Limit Theorem. (Dynamo did not have a Gaussian random number generator and hence R&P had to invoke the CLM to get a normal distribution.) Rather, this molecule’s normal output is a result of the observations being a sum of Gaussian draws. Hence, the series over short intervals should better approximate normality than the macro in R&P.

MEAN: This is the desired mean for the pink noise.

STD DEVIATION: This is the desired standard deviation for the pink noise.

CORRELATION TIME: This is the smooth time for the noise, or for the more technically minded this is the inverse of the filter’s cut-off frequency in radians.