I don't think it's his handling of Ubuntu but more that Ubuntu (which is just Debian testing + unstable) can do weird things.
I suggest running Debian stable (although testing and even unstable run fine here) with the stable, backported, contrib and non-free packages first.
When you're comfortable with that setup installing the latest software directly (outside the Debian repositories) from source/.deb packages is next. This should give you up-to-date software like with Arch.
E17 isn't available right now in the Debian repository, but I suggest looking at fluxbox as it keeps all the distraction away from the desktop and provides a simple way to run programs (which is what's it all about).
As an alternative look into FreeBSD, my first open source server/desktop that I used.