Several months ago I suggested that the MC documentation include some
information to help users solve terminal emulation problems. Since then
I have managed to solve some of my particular problems and discovered a
few things. Granted, my knowledge is still mostly gaps, but I'll offer
this for discussion, corrections, or additions.
comments in  are gaps that need to be filled
This is a summary of what I have learned about terminal problems while
trying to get Midnight Commander (MC) to work when I telnet/ssh into a
Linux machine from OS/2. It is very incomplete, but some of it might
First, terminal problems are very common. They aren't unique to any
application or operating system. This document is aimed at Midnight
Commander users, but some of it would apply to terminal-emulation
problems in general.
If you are new to Unix-like operating systems, read this part:
A PC operating system like DOS, Windows, OS/2, etc. deals directly
with the hardware. Using it doesn't (normally) involve the concept
of a "terminal" at all.
Say you are using Norton Commander under DOS. You press the <Shift>
key, then press the <F1> key. Norton Commander not only knows you
pressed <Shift>+<F1>, it can look to see which of the two <Shift>
keys you pressed. If you press the <End> key, it can tell whether it
is the grey <End> key or the <End>/<1> key on the number keypad.
Likewise, a DOS application can display text and colors on the screen
by writing directly to the memory chip on your video card.
Unix-based operating systems work differently. Imagine you are
sitting at a terminal that consists of just a keyboard and a screen.
It is connected by a cable to a computer that may be miles away, with
Midnight Commander running on it. Information about what keys you
press is sent as a string of characters from the terminal to the
computer. If you press the <a> key, the terminal sends the letter
"a". If you press <Shift>+<a>, it sends the letter "A". But
keypresses like <F1> and <Shift>+<F1> are not letters. The terminal
sends some string of characters that represents that particular key
or combination of keys. For instance, it might send "^[[[A" when you
press the <F1> key and ^[[25~ when you press <Shift>+<F1>. (The
"^[" in those examples represents what is called the escape
character. It is often used with terminals and printers to indicate
that the letters that follow have some special meaning and should not
be interpreted as printable characters.) Likewise, when MC puts
information on the terminal's screen it often has to use escape
sequences to tell the terminal where to put the text and what color
By now, you can guess what the problem is-- A Unix-style application
like MC has to know what escape sequences your terminal uses. There
are hundreds of different kinds of terminals, each with its own set
of escape sequences. Even worse, they don't all have the same
capabilities-- some do not have all the keys you are used to on a PC
keyboard, some have extra keys, they don't all have the same size of
screen, some don't use color, etc. Each application cannot possibly
know how to communicate with every kind of terminal. The Terminfo
database is an attempt to address this problem.
You say "but I'm not using a terminal, I'm using Linux on a PC!" But
you are using a terminal. It's just that your terminal is in the
same machine as the computer. Consider the screen or window that you
use for MC as a fake terminal provided by Linux. And even Linux
provides more than one kind of terminal; the terminal you are using
may be "linux", "xterm", "eterm", "rxvt", etc. They each have
different capabilities. This is important to understand-- any time
you use Midnight Commander you must be using either a real terminal
or some kind of software that pretends to be a terminal. That is,
software that provides terminal emulation.
The Terminfo database attempts to solve the problem of multitudes of
terminal types by providing a file for each terminal that describes
what it can do and how it does it. (Termcap is a similar scheme, but
isn't used much now. We will ignore Termcap.) Somewhere on your
computer is a directory called "terminfo" with a lot of directories
and files under it. Each of those files is a description of a
terminal. So when you run MC, it checks to see what your terminal
type is set to. (To find out, type "echo $TERM" at a command
prompt.) If your terminal type is "linux", MC reads the terminfo
file called "linux" to find out how to talk to your terminal.
(Actually, MC does it indirectly, by using either the Slang or
Ncurses libraries. MC talks to Slang and Slang talks to the
Briefly, a terminfo entry defines a standard set of things that a
terminal might be capable of, and defines how it does them. For
instance, it might tell the application that the terminal sends
"^[[[A" when the <F1> key is pressed, and that the application can
send "^[[H^[[J" to clear the screen.
Getting Midnight Commander to work:
In theory, Terminfo should solve the problem. However, some of the
terminfo entries are incomplete or wrong, and often a terminal
emulator doesn't accurately emulate the terminal that it claims to
be. The result is that when you use MC, some of your keys don't work,
or produce the wrong result, or the screen does not display what it
Other applications may work correctly with your terminal. If the
only problem you have is with MC, that does not necessarily mean MC
is faulty. It probably just means MC uses some capability of your
terminal that the other application doesn't. The fault is probably a
mismatch between your terminal and the terminfo entry. You can try to
fix your problems in several ways:
1) Change your $TERM variable to match what your terminal emulator is
emulating. If your terminal emulates xterm, set TERM=xterm. People
sometimes think that changing $TERM will change the capabilities of
their terminal. It doesn't. Setting TERM=xterm will not give you an
xterm terminal, it just tells applications that you have an xterm
terminal. If you don't have xterm, nothing good will come of lying
2) MC has a limited ability to fix keyboard problems. First, go to
the 'Options/Learn Keys' item on the MC menu. For instance, if MC
doesn't recognize your arrow keys, you can teach it what escape
sequences your terminal sends for those keys. MC saves the sequences
in your ~/.mc/ini file. In fact, the mc.lib file already has many
additions that fix common problems. Look at /usr/share/mc/mc.lib or
/usr/local/share/mc/mc.lib. Note that the key assignments are listed
under the terminal name. If you use MC under several different terminal
types, you need to fix the key assignments for each one separately.
[This explanation probably needs to be expanded]
3) You could try compiling MC with a different screen library. You
have a choice of using the Slang library that comes with MC, or the
version of Slang that is (probably) already on your computer, or the
version of Ncurses that is (probably) already on your computer. Slang
is reputedly better at dealing with broken terminfo entries than
Ncurses, and MC uses Slang by default. But I suppose Ncurses might
be better in some circumstances.
4) You might be able to reconfigure your terminal emulator.
5) It might be worthwhile to get an updated Terminfo database from
ftp://invisible-island.net/ncurses/terminfo.src.gz. Of course, there
is always a chance that the newer version of your terminal's entry
could be as bad or worse than the one you have. The database is in a
file called terminfo.src. Use the 'tic' command (part of Ncurses) to
compile and install it. Some of the comments in terminfo.src might
be worth reading.
6) If all else fails, you can try to fix your terminfo entry to match
what your emulator does. It could be that the entry is wrong, or your
emulator is faulty. Try to figure out which is the case. If your
emulator provides a faulty emulation of a terminal, it would probably
be a mistake to break a good terminfo entry to match it.
That was my situation. My SSH client for OS/2 claims to provide a
"substantial subset" of the xterm-color terminal. It doesn't say
which version of xterm-color. I doubt if even the various Linux
distributions all provide exactly the same terminfo files. None of
the various xterm-color files I could find were very close to what my
terminal emulator actually does. Rather than redefine Terminfo's
idea of what xterm-color is, I decided to write a new terminfo entry
that would provide an accurate description of my terminal. I kept
the parts of xterm-color that worked or that I didn't understand.
Then I tried to fix the other pieces one at a time, with the help of
'tack' and 'infocmp'.
Some tips, in no particular order:
The escape character is often represented by "^[", but Terminfo
entries use "\E" and MC uses "\e".
If you want to see what character sequence your terminal sends for
each key, use the command 'showkey -a'.
By all means, look at documentation. Try 'man terminfo', as well as
the manpages for the individual utilities.
http://www.tldp.org/HOWTO/Text-Terminal-HOWTO.html might be useful.
Each terminfo capability has a short name and a long name that is
easier to understand. Unfortunately, 'tack' and 'tput' only use the
short forms. Keep a list handy for reference.
If you don't have Ncurses, go to
Ncurses comes with some very useful utilities, like infocmp, tack,
'infocmp' will decode a terminfo entry into something that is
(hopefully) understandable by a human. To see description of the
xterm entry, type "infocmp -L1f xterm | less". You can redirect
that into a file, edit the file, and then recompile it into a new
terminfo entry with "tic xterm.txt". Infocmp will also let you
extract capabilities that two entries have in common or that are
'tack' is a program to detect errors in a terminfo entry. It will
ask you to press keys to see if they are recognized and put things on
the screen to see if they display correctly. The Alternate Character
Set section can help figure out why line-drawing characters don't
'tput' will let you manually send commands to the terminal, using
their terminfo names. For instance, "tput clear" should clear the
screen. If it doesn't, the 'clear' sequence in your terminfo entry
is probably wrong.
If you press a cursor or function key and you get a spurious letter
instead of what you expect, it means the terminal sent a sequence
that the application doesn't understand. For instance, you press
<Home> and the MC editor displays 1~ instead of moving the cursor.
The terminal probably sent "^[[1~". MC didn't recognize that and
interpreted the last part of it to mean that you typed "1~".
The easiest fix might be to add this line in your ~/.mc/ini file:
Don't expect perfection. Sometimes terminal emulation problems are
not fixable, or aren't worth the frustration. In the MC editor, I
can use <Shift>+ Arrow keys to mark text, but <Shift>+<End> or
<Shift>+<Home> insert spurious characters. I don't understand why.
I finally just edited ~/.mc/ini to tell MC to interpret them as
<End> and <Home>, because I would rather have unwanted cursor
movements than unwanted characters. In particular, don't try to
understand all about a terminfo entry; it will drive you mad.
Some questions I can't answer:
[How does MC read mc.lib? If a key is defined in the [terminal:xterm]
section, does that apply only when $TERM = xterm, or to any terminal
that starts with xterm, like xterm-color?]
[I don't quite understand the files that get installed in
/usr/share/mc/term. It seems like they ought to be mentioned here.
Or are they mostly obsolete?]
[Terminfo entries have a way to change a terminal keyboard from "normal mode"
to "application mode". I don't really understand that, but I can see it
complicates things. Does MC use application mode if the terminfo entry
provides for it? What does a user lose if his terminal doesn't allow it?]
[Under xterm and related terminals, MC has some features that aren't
possible under other terminals. What exactly are those features? Is
this somehow related to how MC recognizes <Shift>, <Alt>, <Ctrl> key
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