UPDATE `plugins` SET `last_reported_at` = '2010-11-17 19:53:00' WHERE `id` = 999999
I assumed that only the updated data was written to disk. I was wrong: Jesse Newland of Rails Machine pointed out that updating a row in a MyISAM table rewrites the entire row to disk (not just the updated columns).
These updates were expensive: we were updating small bits of data, but our table contained a large text column that accounted for 75% of the data stored in the table. Every update to a row in our plugins table would rewrite the large text column (even though the text column wasn’t changing).