Apple - Errors from whatis command. Unable to rebuild database with makewhatis?

The following can be used as a workaround for the macOS 10.15.1 version of the apropos command, wherein it spews out complaints of the form makewhatis: /usr/lib/lib … .dylib: Not a directory.

First create the workaround script:

$ mkdir -p ~/workarounds
$ sed -e 66s@/usr/lib@@ /usr/bin/apropos > ~/workarounds/apropos.macos_10.15.1 
$ diff /usr/bin/apropos ~/workarounds/apropos.macos_10.15.1 
<     for d in /var/cache/man $manpath /usr/lib
>     for d in /var/cache/man $manpath 
$ chmod +x ~/workarounds/apropos.macos_10.15.1

Next add an alias to your shell to tell it to use the workaround script, until a newer version of the canonical script becomes available.

For Zsh you can use the following command:

$ /bin/cat <<END >> ~/.zshrc
# Workaround for broken apropos command.
alias apropos=~/workarounds/apropos.macos_10.15.1

For other shells such as ksh or bash, use ~/.profile or ~/.bash_profile, as appropriate.

What does the workaround do?

Apropos requests (and man -k requests) are handled by the /usr/bin/apropos script. That script searches for “whatis” database files in all the directories of the man path (see man —path), plus /var/cache/man and /usr/lib. The checks for /var/cache/man/whatis and /usr/lib/whatis appear to be there for historical reasons, however those files are not actively generated in Mojave or Catalina. A lot of different people have contributed to the various flavours of Unix over the years, and many of them had different good ideas about where to put different types of files. At some point in time, somebody decided that /usr/lib would be a good place to put a whatis file, and at some other point somebody else figured that /var/cache/man would be a good place. Others thought that the appropriate place would be the respective man page directories. Different solutions that seemed appropriate at the time. The apropos script has traditionally checked those locations in case a whatis file was present.

With the move to making the system directories on Catalina read-only (a good move), whatis database files can not be written to directories such as /usr/share/man. There are different ways that Apple could handle that, but for this release somebody decided to alter the apropos script by making it generate results on the fly by calling /usr/libexec/makewhatis.local for any man page directory that does not contain a whatis file.

That new apropos code works fine for actual man page directories, and for /var/cache/man (since it doesn’t exist), but it fails for /usr/lib. The workaround detailed above just eliminates /usr/lib from the list of directories searched.

As a final step, set yourself a reminder for a month or two from now to check whether Apple has fixed the apropos script. If so remove your workarounds, by removing the alias and the workaround script.

I just ran into this and googled my way here...

Looks like "whatis" will either grep through generated whatis files, or generate them on the fly to the stdout. What we're seeing is the output of "makewhatis" being run on /usr/lib.

You'll get the same errors from:

/usr/libexec/makewhatis -o /dev/fd/1 /usr/lib

/usr/lib isn't in the manpath (output of "man --path") - it's added explicitly by "whatis", though for what reason I have no idea. There are no man pages there, and makewhatis is clearly expecting everything in a man folder to be a subdirectory.

If we could edit the "whatis" script, we could fix it. But we can't, because /usr/bin is read-only.

If we could generate an empty /usr/lib/whatis, the complaints would stop. But we can't because /usr/lib is read-only.

It might be possible to fix /usr/libexec/makewhatis.local to stop this nonsense, but it's read-only.

I need to do some research to see if there's a way to get the OS volume mounted read-write for a bit.

On a related note: Even if we did get a "makewhatis" to run successfully, it won't generate /usr/lib/whatis, because /usr/lib not in the man path... so it won't fix this. Creating an empty /usr/lib/whatis is probably the easiest and safest option, if we can figure out how.

Regarding a Solution that would generate the missing whatis files:

The solution to updating the "whatis" database in /usr/share/man requires a fix from Apple. They need to either add /usr/share/man to their list of firm links (similar to the implementation for /usr/share/snmp), or add a static copy of the whatis file to the system volume.

Firm links are a new feature of the APFS; designed to support merging read-write volumes with read-only system volumes. As of the Catalina release the core operating system files are held on a read-only volume, which is then merged with a read-write data volume via the use of firm links. Under macOS version 10.15.1, /usr/share/man is only present on the read-only system volume. You can add an entry for /usr/share/man to the data volume by creating the directory /System/Volumes/Data/usr/share/man, as demonstrated by klanomath’s answer, but it will not be mapped onto the system directory (/usr/share/man) until a corresponding firm link is created.

A list of the current firmlinks can be found in /usr/share/firmlinks. The documentation that I have been able to dig up thus far is not clear as to whether firmlinks is a reference file, or a configuration file, but it looks to me like a configuration file that is read and utilized as part of the boot procedures. Assuming that it is a configuration file, then you could theoretically correct the issue by adding an entry for /usr/share/man to the file.

Unfortunately, since /usr/share/firmlinks is housed in the read-only system volume, you can not edit it as a user, or even as the super-user. Even in single-user mode, mounting the system volume group in read-write mode is prevented (ie: /sbin/mount -uw /does not work). It may be possible to r/w mount the the system volume as a subsidiary drive on a secondary system, and then make the edits; but that is more experimentation time than I was willing to put in.

So in short, the improved security of Catalina prevents updating that directory until Apple fixes the issue.

The above notes are relative to Catalina (macOS v 10.15.1). As it is a simple fix, I expect the issue will be corrected soon.