Linux has a tweakable knob called laptop_mode which is meant as an energy saving tool for laptop users on battery: it basically says “try not to touch the disk for X minutes at a time, unless you really need to, and once you do, do everything that you’ve been piling up all at once”. It’s great for laptop users, and doubly so for things like my huge laptop with two 7200RPM HDDs. Seriously.
Now, there are two things that mean you “really need to” hit the disc: reading data that isn’t already cached (duh), and the fsync() and fdatasync() calls. The latter are requests by an application to ensure that all of the data written to far has hit the disc, and they cause the disk to spin up in laptop mode.
Unfortunately, Firefox has a habit of randomly issuing fdatasync() calls. It does this as part of the SQLite backend for its various databases (especially places.sqlite), in order to avoid data corruption. Now, data corruption isn’t terribly likely on a laptop with a battery (which is essentially a built-in UPS), so this is a terrible annoyance with little benefit anyway. There has been talk about this problem, but apparently it’s still around (and the toolkit.storage.synchronous about:config property didn’t work for me). Most of the reports appear to claim that this happens while browsing, but I’ve seen it happen periodically even when Firefox is left idle. Maybe it’s caused by some extension or AJAX webapp? Who knows.